Part III of Clemency for Pollard: The Case for Liberals and Conservatives, by Rabbi Lopatin

October 29, 2010

Two new arguments that make sense for all Americans and lovers of justice and the American way.


The first works well for those on the Left – but is valid for those on the Right as well:

Fair Sentencing for Jonathan Pollard is a matter of American Justice

Clemency for Jonathan Pollard is not an issue just affecting  Jews or for the pro-Israel community; rather, it is a matter for all who care about  American justice and civil rights.  Pollard, who has been in prison for 25 years,  is serving an unprecedented sentence, way out of proportion to the normal sentencing, for his single indictment, that of transferring information to a foreign country, with the intent that that information would be used by that country (Israel).  Some have said that there are secret papers – known only to Casper Weinberger and to the judge who sentenced Pollard – that show how serious his crime was.  Others say that Pollard is getting his “just deserts” and he deserves to rot in jail forever.  Neither of these statements bode well for a system of justice that is supposed to be transparent and unbiased.  In fact, this attitude of letting those in the security services determine how long people are sent to jail for, without any accountability even to lawyers who defend the accused, will lead us down a road where civil, legal and human rights are denied to anyone whom the security services don’t like – Muslim, Jew, radical or reactionary.  We have already seen issues in the Patriot Act that verge on this usurpation of American justice; let us not allow our love for America, over any other nation, friendly – such as Israel – or unfriendly, destroy the fair and open justice system that we have fought to defend for centuries.  Whether it is a radical Muslim that you don’t like or a spy for Israel that you don’t like, let us make sure that blind justice is done and that American law is followed.  Let us not let “secret information”, known only to those in power, to destroy “liberty and justice for all”.

The second works well for those on the Right – but is valid for those on the Left as well:


Clemency for Pollard is an important issue for those who are interested in fighting America’s true enemies – such as Islamic terror extremism and  its supporters throughout the world – rather than making moral equivalents between allies and enemies. Pollard transferred information – illegally – to America’s closest ally and friend.  True, any two countries will have different priorities and different strategies in fighting the common enemy, and as an American Pollard needed to follow American law which reflected the American strategy for fighting the enemy.  But, unlike many in the politically correct community, it is important for those interested in American interests to finally recognize that Israel is not the enemy, Israel is not the obstacle to peace, that it is not true that without Israel the Middle East or the world would be a stable, pro-American bastion of democracy!  For too long, in Democratic and Republican administrations, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, and Palestinians who danced on 9/11,  have been coddled and allowed to export terrorists and Imam’s who preach terrorism and export the money that pays for those Imams and terror organizations all over the world.  I believe that we have to say that yes, Pollard violated American law by spying, but let’s put things in proper perspective; let’s understand who our friends are and who are enemies are.  Clemency for Pollard can be the first step in moving in that more realistic and strategic direction, and being honest in admitting where the threats to America’s well being lies, and who are our allies in defeating that threat.

Let’s make the case!


Asher Lopatin





Football, Sex, and the Jews, by R. Yosef Kanefsky

October 26, 2010

A couple of Sundays ago, our 9 year old was watching a football game on TV. Seemed like a reasonable activity in between several things that had been scheduled for the day. I sat down next to him, and within minutes was confronting a “parenting moment”. The first beer commercial after the time-out went straight to the edge of the legal limit, in targeting the libido in order to sell its product. It was all at the family-friendly hour of 11 in the morning (Pacific Time) on network TV, as a father and son were bonding over a ballgame. Shoot.

 It’s not like I don’t live in the world.  Or that I believe that my kids never see billboards, or magazine covers in the checkout line. But those are “out there” in the world that our kids already know is a mixed moral bag. But the commercial was “in here”, in the sanctuary of our Jewish home, the place where we still insist on the difference between “appropriate” and “inappropriate” words and images.  

Of course you and I can complain from today till tomorrow, but nobody at the NFL, Budweiser, or Fox is interested in hearing it. We know it’s our own job to talk with our kids about this. And you’d think that it actually shouldn’t be too hard for us. After all, we go all the back to Leviticus in abhorring promiscuity, and our traditional Jewish literature extols the virtue of modesty all over the place. In theory, we have all the right language and religious/moral categories to carry on the conversation. Yet in practice, we struggle, procrastinate, and sometimes just can’t figure out how to have the conversation at all. After all, it’s not as if we believe that sex is dirty, or that beauty isn’t part of God’s creation (with apologies to the closing verses of Eshet Chayil). The conversation is nuanced, which is to say, difficult.

And unfortunately, we’ve compounded our problem by absolutely murdering the one value-word that we always do seem to have at the ready. “Tzniut” (modesty) is the word we instinctively want to say, but we’ve tragically succeeded in emptying the term of any value content at all. It’s become an adjective – strange all by itself, since it’s actually a noun – with which to describe the length of a sleeve or the height of a neckline (and confined only to discussion of women’s apparel, never men’s). The term is equal in actual moral content to the word “k’zayit” (the “olive-size” minimum amount of matza that one must eat at the Seder). To battle the NFL et. al. we need to be deploy a different religious vocabulary, reviving the use of solid, traditional terms like human dignity (“kavod habriyot”) and image of God (“tzelem Elokim”). With these, we can initiate and frame a discussion that truly captures our religious ethic, one that truly addresses what’s wrong with that beer commercial and the value system it’s built upon. And as an added bonus, if we leave “tzniut” alone for a while, the next generation will be able to reclaim it for the powerful religious word that it is.

Scorecard for Jonathan Pollard: Ask your Representative! by Rabbi Asher Lopatin

October 22, 2010

I have been pushing for a letter of clemency for Jonathan Pollard that Rep. Barney Frank was circulating to members of the U.S. House of Representatives to ask President Obama to extend clemency to Mr. Pollard.   My information is that it was presented to President Obama with thirty signatures: all of them Democrats, none Republicans.  I have been trying to get Mark Kirk, a Republican representative running for Senate in Illinois to sign, to no avail.  Rep. Eric Cantor has refused to sign it;  Minister Hagee and Gary Bauer – two fundamentalist Christians – tried to get him to sign it, but he wouldn’t.  I am gratified that my own Rep., Jan Schakowsky did sign it, and that  the Republican candidates for House in my area, Joel Polak and David Ratowitz as well as Democratic senate candidate Alexi Gionoulias have all agree that they would support clemency.  Unfortunately, Rep. Mike Quigley – in our shul’s district – did not sign the letter and has not gotten back to me with his position after weeks of emails and phone calls. Can you please call your Rep, or the opposing candidate for Rep in your district and find out what their position is on this?

Many people feel that the only important issue is Israel and the Jewish people. If so, find out if the candidate that everyone is proclaiming is so pro-Israel or pro-Jewish is supporting this request for clemency.  In my state, Mark Kirk has been hailed as the best person for Israel: So why can’t his campaign answer me regarding his lack of support for clemency for Jonathan Pollard who was acting as an Israeli agent for the sake of Israel, and the lives of Jews in Israel.  Even if it was a crime by American law, he has been punished more than anyone else who has spied for a friendly country, and the charges that he caused the capture of 11 Americans by the USSR have long been shown to be incorrect – it was the Russian mole Aldrich Ames who compromised their lives.

On erev Shabbat as we read of Avraham’s plea to God for justice for Sodom and Gemora, let’s start demanding of our politicians – from whatever party – that they start showing the courage to really stand up for Israel and fair justice, not just when it suits them.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin

Esther Petrack: Do-over. Rabbi Barry Gelman

October 20, 2010

Dear Friends,

Please see below:

I am Esther Petrack’s mother and since her level of religious observance has attracted so much attention on the internet, I feel the need to clarify a few points.

The fateful 4 words “I will do it” in answer to a question about working on shabbat,  were the result of EDITING. Esther never said, meant that she would give up shabbat for the sake of appearing on a tv show; neither did she do it. These words were extracted from a long conversation Esther had about the laws of shabbat and the principles governing them and how she was planning to keep them while on the show. The producers then cut out these 4 words to create a more scandalous storyline. This is common practice in reality tv and careful viewers can actually see and hear that the words are edited; and I would have hoped that non careful viewers would also have known because they would have given Esther the benefit of the doubt (kaf zechus)…

 I am proud of Esther’s comittment to Jewish observance which she carried throughout the show. As a cute example, the viewers of the show know that the girls were hosted in a house overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Esther used the ocean to tovel (dunk in a mikve) a pot she bought for cooking for herself in the house…

I am not the only one who got this email and I stand corrected and apologize to Esther and her family for not giving her the benefit of the doubt she deserved.

For more on this please see the following post –

Does Orthodoxy Change? -by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

October 19, 2010

(The following is a message I wrote to my congregation and was also printed in the most recent newsletter of the Chicago Rabbinical Council (CRC).)

Recently several Orthodox congregations that have embraced wider roles for women within their synagogues have been in the news and the subject of much internet banter.   Two come to mind.  First,  “partnership minyanim,” in which women lead sections of the prayer service on behalf of the entire congregation — sections that one is not halakhically obligated to say.  Thus, it is argued that women may lead these sections.  And in Riverdale, New York, a woman was recently granted the title Rabbah, feminine for rabbi. The argument put forth by supporters is that much that a rabbi does, such as teaching and counseling, may be done by a woman, according to Jewish law; of course, those tasks that may not be done by a woman would not be performed by such a female Orthodox rabbi.  Therefore, the argument goes, we should give women a voice within Jewish leadership, in this way.

Where does Bais Abraham, perhaps one of the most diverse and embracing Orthodox synagogues, stand on these issues?  In approaching such decisions we must realize we stand on the shoulders of giants.  One such giant is my predecessor and rabbi of Bais Abraham for over 40 years, Rabbi Abraham Magence, Zt”l.   He taught us the beauty of every person, Jew or non-Jew. He taught us to make enough room for people to become as fully inspired as they can, to embrace everyone, no matter their level of observance, and to recognize the image of God in each person.  When asked if women could hold their own service, one practiced within the bounds of halacha, omitting sections that require a minyan of men, he replied, “Why not?”  I think what Rabbi Magence meant by this was that if the law does not forbid it and women will be inspired, who are we to forbid it?  As the Talmud says, “Just because it has not been done before does not necessarily render it forbidden”  (Mishna Ediyot 2:2).

Certainly much does change in Jewish custom and law.  For instance, 75 years ago, a rabbi who gave a sermon in English instead of Yiddish would have been widely criticized, whereas today it is the convention.  In the past, Orthodox girls did not publicly celebrate becoming a Bat Mitzvah, yet today it is quite common in the Orthodox world.  In the past, women often ignored the Code of Jewish Law’s proscription for them to pray daily and say Grace after Meals with a quorum of three women, where as today these holy actions are commonly practiced.

On the other hand, I would call for some caution.  We must be careful not to implement change without proper forethought as to how things should change.  Orthodoxy believes that though we are all made in the image of God, no matter our gender or religion, this does not mean we are all the same.  Men and women have unique voices and to ignore each gender’s distinctive vision and potential contributions would be a loss for Judaism.

While Bais Abraham embraces change that can lead to a more profound and passionate observance of commandments and study of Torah, we are wary to not lose the strengths of Jewish tradition in the process.  May we merit navigating the waters of change with deep respect for our Divine tradition and the consideration of congregational dignity, along with respect for personal strengths and diversity.  We are, and I’m sure will remain, an open, inspiring, loving, and diverse Bais Abe family.


Did Abraham Fail his Final Test? By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

October 12, 2010

Over Rosh Hashanah I thought a lot about the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, since the story is so central to Rosh Hashanah. The most important questions that are asked about  the Akedah are what gave Abraham the right to offer his child without asking Sara,  since Isaac is her child also? As the Talmud tells us there are 3 partners in everyone’s creation –  a father, a mother and God.

Second,  why did Abraham not speak up to protect the innocent as he did in the case of Sodom, where God made clear that he expects it of Avrohom as He says, “Avrohom is the one who will teach justice and mercy to his children”.

And third,  what are we to do with the depiction of God at the Akedah that so contrasts with the God of the Torah who does not want us to hurt the innocent but protect them?  Why is Abraham praised for his willingness to obey God instead of protecting the innocent and weak?   Wouldn’t that be a better way of showing one’s love and fear of God?

Many classic answers are given but none that do not generate many more questions.   For instance, some sages claim Abraham somehow knew both promises would come to be, that Isaac would be his seed and that he would also have to offer him up.  Or in another version,  that God did not tell Abraham to kill his child,  only to bring him up as an offering, but of course in either case, it is no test.  Or,  that God’s word trumps all, but then we are left with the questions we asked above and indeed we know (from the story of  Sodom earlier in the parsha) that Abraham is not someone who believes that God can
not be questioned.

Every 5 or 10 years it is reported in the news papers that someone sacrifices their child because of a command from God.  Usually we chalk these up to insanity, but every few years one runs across such a story in which the father indeed is not crazy and never was, yet kills the child at  what he believes is God’s command.   For Jews, after the giving of the torah, halacha trumps God’s command, so an observant Jew would not be permitted to sacrifice their child or commit any other sin even if they were sure it was the command of God. However, it does beg the question of Abraham who knew from the story of Cain and Abel that killing was forbidden.

In addition as some of the anthropological writers ask, what does it mean to live in a world in which a large portion of the world’s inhabitants, Christians and Muslims, both see a story of sacrificing one’s child for God as foundational?

I concluded that none of the apologetic paths were satisfactory and that the real test was for Abraham to confront God as he did at  Sodom, thus teaching his children “righteousness and justice”  and ultimately to say “no” to God.  Perhaps, on some level in the narrative of the Akedah,  Abraham failed the test.   I would suggest this is why God never speaks to Abraham after commanding him to take Isaac as a burnt offering.  In the end of the story an emissary angel speaks to Abraham  – but where is God?  Why  doesn’t God  just speak directly to Abraham?

Indeed midrash after midrash depicts just such a counter narrative, Abraham crying, the angles crying and arguing with God and ultimately,  Sara’s cries when she hears of the Akedah that according to the midrash are the source of the shofar’s sound.

Perhaps if we begin to see the Akedah as a test in which the right answer is to protect an innocent child rather than sacrifice him in obedience to God, our world might be a bit different, perhaps for the better.

Sometimes, being faithful means skipping football – Rabbi Barry Gelman

October 7, 2010


Earlier this week I posted an article related to a Modern Orthodox woman who was a contestant on ANTM. The article raised the question as to whether or not Modern Orthodoxy has made a mistake in thinking that we can have it all.

Here is a link to an article by Ken Herman of the Austin American Statesman.  It is a question with a uniquely Texan take. It is a refreshing approach to faith and popular culture. I think the writer makes great points and highlights the question of sacrifice and faith. Here is the link –

Let’s get Jonathan Pollard Out of Jail, byRabbi Asher Lopatin

October 6, 2010

Representative Barney Frank, a liberal Democrat close to the Obama administration, is circulating a letter through the House of Representatives calling for clemency for Jonathan Pollard. There is a lot we do not know about Pollard’s case, but what we do know is that his sentence – a plea bargain! – was way beyond anything anyone else has gotten for spying for an ally (Israel) and that even those who pushed for his harsh sentencing – such as Sec. of Defense Casper Weinberger – have expressed long ago that Pollard has been in for long enough. Even though Pollard violated American law, he acted out of devotion to Israel. We may all have to admit that there is a little bit of Pollard in any American – Jewish or gentile – who loves the State of Israel and is passionate about helping her survive against those who wish to destroy her. Yes, we all need to respect the laws of our country, and never put American lives at risk, as Pollard may have done. At the same time, we have to be understanding and sympathetic to what motivated Pollard, and we have to honestly feel for his passionate sacrificing of his life for the State of Israel.
My Representative in Chicago, Jan Schakowsky, who is on the House Select Intelligence Committee, has signed on to this letter. If you agree that 25 years is enough prison for Jonathan Pollard, and that it is important not to forget about someone who was acting to help Israel, then please call or email your Representative, and ask if they have signed on to the Barney Frank letter. Rep. Frank has said that if this letter gets enough signatures, he will present it to the president. This is an rare opportunity to make a difference – I hope if you feel it is the right thing that you just pick up the phone and call your Representative and let them know how you feel.
Right after all our prayers to change the world, we have a real opportunity for positive change. Let’s not squander it.
Rabbi Asher Lopatin

Simchat Torah’s Heart Tug by Yosef Kanefsky

October 6, 2010

There’s no shortage of reasons that Simchat Torah might be one of your least favorite days in shul. It’s another long morning in a season of long mornings. Dancing might not be your thing. The kids running around with joyous abandon might get on your nerves. I have known similar feelings over the years. Yet, there is something about Simchat Torah that tugs at my heart, and sends my soul flying. I find that it’s worth every second of the hangin’ around shul all day.

Even though I know it’s coming, and I’ve experienced it so many times before, I find the moment when we start B’raishit to be just thrilling. Chills-running-down-my-spine thrilling. The words – so familiar, so simple, so austere – are unexpectedly moving when I hear them in the context of this craziest of days in shul. The reading, along with the pomp, ceremony and song that accompany it, feels like an affirmation of something primal and deep.

I think, when it comes down to it, that B’raishit is actually our raucous, primal re-affirmation of our belief in the continuity of the Jewish people. We know that every Braishit will end in a V’zot Habracha, as we know that all who were once young will become old. Every cycle that begins is a cycle that will end. We know it. We live it. But instinctively, responding to our deepest intuition, we always start up all over again. With all of the joy with which we started last time, and the time before that. All of us start again, together. The little ones beneath the canopy of tallitot, the elders sharing the too-many sweets, parents, children, generations, all starting B’raishit together. All the people of Israel.  All over the globe.

We read B’raishit – again, anew – as the holy days of Tishrai reach their end, placing the coda on the year now past. Tomorrow we begin. With hope. With faith. With a niggun. Every cycle will end. But every end will be followed by a beginning.

Modern Orthodoxy – Can We Have It All?

October 4, 2010


Below is a link to an article from  colleague, Rabbi Dr. Jeffrey Woolf who is a Senior Lecturer in the Talmud Department at Bar Ilan University. His article uses the recent participation of Esther Petrack on America’s Next Top Model to focus us on an important issue facing Modern Orthodoxy.  Esther comes from a Modern Orthodox background.  You can find the article here. –

I think Rabbi Woolf, who is a Modern Orthodox Jew makes a very good point and challenges the Modern Orthodox camp in a serious way.

Excerpt from the Tablet Magazine article on Esther Petrack.

After letting Esther say a bit about herself—namely, that she was born in Jerusalem—Ty Ty asked her about her Orthodox Jewish practice. “Do you honor the Sabbath?”

“Yes I do,” Esther responded, proceeding to explain the rules regarding the usage of electricity, computers, cell phones, and cars on Friday night and Saturday. Tyra sternly informed her that ANTM contestants work all the time, seven days a week. (I never realized that modeling was so urgent!) Would Esther, Tyra wanted to know, be able to adhere to the ANTM work schedule? Her Jewish identity was all of a sudden squarely on the spot, not unlike that of her Biblical namesake….” (for the full article follow this link –