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An open letter to Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

 
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Dear Rabbi Boteach,

I am disturbed and offended by your campaign to purchase the Libyan mission’s property adjacent to your home in Englewood. While I join you in support of your condemnation of the Libyan government, its policies toward Israel, and its failure to take moral responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of innocent Americans, I fail to understand why you refuse to abide by the talmudic principle “Dina Malchuta Dina,” the law of the land in which we live must be observed by Jews. As Rep. Steve Rothman explained in a very detailed statement in response to your initial demand that the Libyans be forced to leave the property they own in Englewood, the issue of the legitimacy of their purchase and continued ownership has been adjudicated. Whether we like it or not, the United States courts have determined that they have the right to own that property.

My questions to you are:

1. Why did you choose to buy a home next to the Libyan property if you find living there so painful and distasteful? Would you really want neighbors of every embassy and consulate in our nation to have the right to pick and choose whether that nation has the right to house its ministers and offices in our nation? If a Muslim-American bought property next to the Israeli Mission to the United Nations, should that person have the right to force Israel to sell its residence? If you want Libya to pay property taxes to your town, do you want Israel to also pay property taxes to all the communities where there are Israeli diplomatic residences throughout America?

2. You keep making references in your attacks upon Rep. Rothman to the issue of public aid for private religious schools. Again, Rabbi Boteach, this is an issue that has been extensively debated in our American court system. As a parent who paid day school tuition for two children pre-kindergarten through grade 12, I am grateful that we have the right of school choice for our children and believe that with that right comes the responsibility to support a public education system that is open to all children. My question to you is: How can you square the circle of desiring to maintain a Jewish parochial school and demanding government money? Would you be willing to have your tax dollars equally support Muslim, Hindu, Baha’i, Sikh, Protestant, Catholic, Jain, and Buddhist school systems in northern New Jersey? We are a multicultural, religiously pluralistic community. Can you somehow justify why Jewish schools should get public funds without presenting a plan for how we could afford to have local options for every ethnic and religious group in our community?

3. Will your Jewish think tank be open to all Jews of all religious streams? This is no small matter, since your appeal for funds and support is being made to the entire Jewish community but you have no track record of inclusiveness and recognition of non-Orthodox rabbis, cantors, or academics. As a Reform rabbi who has lived and served in this community for 22 years, I want to invite you to come to the next meeting of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis at noon on Monday, Feb. 8, at the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey and open a discussion on your vision. We can then share with you the exciting progress that we are making through the Kehillah Partnership toward creating a cross-denominational Jewish day camp and retreat center that will serve the full spectrum of Jewish life in our community and that will be located on a property that is being legally and non-coercively acquired by the YJCC of Bergen County in Washington Township for the use of the whole Jewish community. We can also hear from you how you plan to attract Jewish sociologists, theologians, psychologists, social workers, and rabbis of all religious streams to your new center. I am confident that, if your vision is truly inclusive, working together we can find physical space for your think tank that I would hope would be more than just a “Jewish equivalent of the politically conservative Heritage Foundation,” but perhaps an American version of the Shalom Hartman Institute where Jews of all religious and political views come together.

According to the Midrash, all Jews stood together at Sinai. Rabbi Boteach, on this Shabbat of Parshat Yitro, I ask you to consider standing together rather than seeking ways to divide the Jews of northern New Jersey.

Temple Sholom, River Edge, Reform
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Remembering Regina Jonas

Conversion to Judaism is very much in the news today — and for all the wrong reasons. But at the moment, my interest is not in the history of conversion itself, but in the way that it is read into next week’s Torah reading, parashat Lekh Lekha (Genesis 12-17).

The Torah reading opens with God commanding Abraham to set forth on a journey to a place unknown. Abraham sets forth with his wife Sarah, his nephew, all their possessions, and “the souls that they had made in Haran.”

How does someone “make” souls? The midrashic collection Genesis Rabbah, compiled some time in the fifth through eighth centuries, interprets this strange clause as referring to converts. Why did the text say “made” instead of “converted”? To demonstrate that converting someone to Judaism is like creating that person anew. But why the plural? Doesn’t it really mean that he, Abraham, had made or converted those souls? No. Abraham converted the men; Sarah converted the women (Genesis Rabbah 39:14).

 

 

Cold hearts and sub-Saharan Jews

I remember vividly how moved and inspired I was as a child when — at a very early stage of my Jewish education — I was introduced to the sage Hillel and his own youthful entrée to Jewish scholarship.

Hillel went on to become a renowned scholar, a beloved and oft-quoted national leader, and the founder of an important rabbinic dynasty. The brief story — my first “Talmud lesson” — is familiar. Working as a poor woodchopper, Hillel would devote half of his meager earnings to daily necessities. The other half he spent on the fee required for admission to the bet midrash — the Babylonian academy where Torah was taught by the great Shemaiah and Avtalyon. One winter Friday (during the month of Tevet, the Talmud records) he was without sufficient means to enter the citadel of learning. He was turned away. Undeterred, he climbed atop the roof, to listen to the lesson through a skylight. There he stayed until Shabbat morning, when he was found covered by three cubits of snow. “The snow came down from Heaven,” the text (Yoma 35B) says lyrically. (Even in my New England childhood, that daunting volume of snow fired my imagination!)

 

 

Scandals in the rabbinate

In the wake of the recent, highly publicized mikvah scandal, I wonder what possesses men and women who have dedicated themselves to the perpetuation of Judaism and its values to abandon those values.

Often enough this occurs in the domain of sexual wrongdoing, but there also are recorded instances of such ethical offenses as the misuse of discretionary funds for personal or family needs, and criminal activities including the embezzlement of synagogue or Jewish organizational assets. The parties involved often have sterling records of service to the Jewish community and are well-respected as clergy in their denominations and then suddenly all hell breaks loose regarding a discovered transgression that is not a mere peccadillo. Why does this happen?

 

 

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A view from the pew

The recent debates over the so-called Jewish State basic law was the catalyst, though not necessarily the true cause, for the collapse of Israel’s coalition government.

What was this debate really about? As a Chanukah gift to ourselves, I suggest that each of us do a Google search of the following list of internationally recognized legal documents: the Balfour Declaration; UN Resolution 181, dated November 29, 1947; the Israeli declaration of independence; and UN Resolution 242, dated September 1967.

Each of these internationally recognized legal documents are proof that for nearly a century, the international community has affirmed and re-affirmed the right of the Jewish people to re-establish ourselves as an independent Jewish state in the land of Israel. You will note as well that over that same century, the Jewish community in the land of Israel and in the diaspora has affirmed our responsibility to recognize the political and religious rights of non-Jewish residents of the pre-1948 community and of the equality under law of all citizens of Israel.

 

 

Divided we fall — united we may stand

As I look out on the world from my vantage point in relatively safe and protected Teaneck, I am often reminded of these lines by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…”

Here, in the United States, we seem less united than at any time since the Civil War. In much of the Arab world internal sectarianisms and a return to tribalism seem to hold sway. Within the Jewish world we seem to have splintered into ever smaller, more closely defined, exclusive and exclusionary fragments. Even in Teaneck, we are deeply factionalized.

 

 
 
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