Jewish Journal

Rabbi Debra Orenstein

  • On Your Guard

    August 10, 2010 | 9:44 pm

    Is there such a thing as being “too religious”? A related (but hardly identical) question: “Can we be too observant?”

    This week’s Torah portion begins:

    “Judges and officers shall you set for yourself in all your gates which Adonai your God gives you, tribe by tribe;...

  • Magic or Miracle?

    January 13, 2010 | 3:43 am

    If God were to send you on a mission to confront a despot, win the trust of his slaves and lead them in an escape to freedom, you might want a few assurances:

    How exactly will this work? Why should anyone listen?

    Imagine if, in response to your concerns, God tells you to use a...

  • Light the Wick

    December 8, 2009 | 4:21 pm

    Chanukah raises many questions: from, “What did you get me?” to, “How do we relate to the dominant culture — in ancient times and today?” Among the most important spiritual inquiries during this Festival of Lights is the meaning of the lights themselves. The rabbis name...

  • Are We There Yet?

    July 23, 2009 | 2:25 am

    When I was an undergraduate, Princeton celebrated the 10-year anniversary of co-education. A T-shirt sold on campus announced: “Ten years of women at Princeton!” Below, in smaller print, it read: “Too bad it took over 200 years.”

    I was reminded of that message when...

  • What It Takes

    May 6, 2009 | 6:38 pm

    This week’s Torah portion, Emor, sheds light on what it takes to be a leader. Priests serving in the Temple are restricted as to whom they can marry, which of their dead they can bury and how they must maintain their ritual purity. One disturbing expectation imposed on leadership...

  • Who’s Speaking, Please?

    February 11, 2009 | 6:36 pm

    “I am Adonai your God who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slaves” (Exodus 20:2).

    Jews alone consider this verse the first of the Ten Commandments. (Catholics and Protestants each have their own enumerations, inclusive of what Jews consider to be the...

  • Teshuvah and weight loss

    September 24, 2008 | 10:59 pm

    Let me begin with an important disclaimer: it is wrong to equate physical fitness with spiritual fitness. (I personally was at the peak of my spiritual strength during my last pregnancy when I gained 70 pounds and had muscle atrophy from bed rest.) I attribute no virtue to...
  • Blessing Management

    August 21, 2008 | 12:13 am

    This week's Torah portion describes the bountiful blessings promised to our people by God, if (ekev) we obey the laws of Torah.
    • God will love you, multiply you, "bless the issue of your womb and the produce of your soil..." (Deuteronomy 7:13, 8:1).
    • God will bless you above all...
  • Contingencies

    May 22, 2008 | 11:00 am

    In Bechukotai, the word im (Hebrew for if) begins the Torah portion and appears a stunning 29 times. If inspires fantasy, longing and, sometimes, regret.

    Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If” celebrates that word’s challenge and promise:

    If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty...

  • What is valuable?

    February 21, 2008 | 5:00 pm

    I am blessed that my children generally get along well. Now that they are 3 1/2 and 1 1/2, however, they do tussle over toys. A few times, my son, the elder, has screamed the toddler credo -- "It's mine!" -- right in his sister's face.

    In light of such indignation, I reminded them...

  • Right or Righteous?

    November 29, 2007 | 7:00 pm

    Have you ever dealt with someone who insisted s/he was right -- even smugly so -- while actually being objectively, measurably and completely wrong?

    Now, let me ask a tougher question: Have you ever been that person? If so, you are in good -- and plentiful -- company.

    In this...

  • But Who’s Complaining?

    July 26, 2007 | 8:00 pm

    Imagine there is something you have worked and hoped and longed for your whole life. (Perhaps you don't have to imagine.) Just when you are on the cusp of achieving/getting/doing/being it, a door slams in your face, and you learn that you will never live out what you dreamed. What...
  • Saying “Amen” to Life

    February 15, 2007 | 7:00 pm

    When my husband and I put our 2-year-old to bed, we help him with the usual array of activities: changing into pajamas, reading a book, drinking milk, singing songs and -- most beloved to me -- chanting the Shema and Ve'ahavta.

    Each evening at the conclusion of the nighttime Shema,...

  • Holy Doubt

    December 7, 2006 | 7:00 pm

    This week's Torah portion contains a story that most of us skipped in Hebrew school -- the story of Dina.

    Dina goes out to "see the daughters of the land."

    Shechem, the eponymous local prince, sees her, sleeps with her and vaye'aneha -- sexually forces or humiliates her.


  • How to Give Torah

    June 1, 2006 | 8:00 pm

    There are some ideas so familiar to us that it's easy to forget how radical they are. Every human being is created in God's image. Every life is worth a world. The entire people received Torah at Mount Sinai.

    For most people throughout history, including today, a spiritual quest or...

  • Connecting the Dots

    September 15, 2005 | 8:00 pm

    Despite the High Holidays arriving late this year, many Jews are still scrambling to prepare. The practical and spiritual work is demanding: cooking, traveling, repenting, forgiving -- it all takes time and energy.

    In anticipation of the Day of Judgment, Jews judge themselves this...

  • Ritual’s Mysteries

    July 7, 2005 | 8:00 pm

    This week's Torah portion begins with, and is named after, the key word chukat. Chukat means "the law of" and specifically refers to the ritual law of the red heifer. What distinguishes a chok from other kinds of laws is its mystery.

    Most Torah commandments have a basis in reason...

  • Living Torah

    December 30, 2004 | 7:00 pm


    Imagine yourself forgotten, without anyone to protect you. Ruling powers are oppressing you and killing your children. The purported

    "reason" is economic, but a deep hatred based on mere difference underlies this attempted genocide. Helpless, you cry out. Who, in heaven and on...

  • The Heart of Time

    November 25, 2004 | 7:00 pm

    What books must every Jew read? What books are critical to informing your understanding of your faith, your culture, your people? With this issue, The Jewish Journal introduces a new weekly column: My Jewish Library. We've asked rabbis, scholars and thinkers to each pick the one...

  • Ready for Judgment?

    August 12, 2004 | 8:00 pm

    This week ushers in Elul, the month when Jews traditionally prepare for the High Holidays. In anticipation of the Day of Judgment, we judge ourselves, conducting a full cheshbon hanefesh (accounting of the soul). The Torah portion Re'eh can serve as a checklist for forgiveness,...

  • Spying the Future

    June 10, 2004 | 8:00 pm

    In "Happiness Is a Choice" (Fawcett, 1991), Barry Neil Kaufman, founder of the Option Institute, tells an amazing story about a young patient named Katie, whose parents brought her to him in a last-ditch effort to give her a "decent future." She had severe disabilities and came to...

  • Can Purity Last?

    April 15, 2004 | 8:00 pm

    In this week's Torah portion, Moses elaborates the laws of impurity. Touching or holding something impure will render people, clothing, food, beverages, containers, wood, leather, earthenware and ovens impure. Shemini is concerned with the consequences of contact with living,...

  • Lessons of the Season

    February 5, 2004 | 7:00 pm

    Imagine the Jewish calendar as three concentric circles: the Torah reading cycle, the holiday cycle and your personal life cycle.

    The circles line up in various combinations, like one of those "work wheels" from camp. If your bat mitzvah falls on Shabbat Chanukah, you may always view...

  • Blessings Over Curses

    September 11, 2003 | 8:00 pm

    This week's Torah portion presents the blessings and curses that follow from observance or defiance of the law. Some people understand this as a rigid system of reward and punishment. Keep the covenant, and all will be well; violate it, and you will suffer.

    The blessings and curses...

  • Righteous Indignation

    July 17, 2003 | 8:00 pm

    Last week's Torah portion ended with a dramatic cliffhanger. A plague was in progress, punishing the Israelites for worshipping the false gods. Despite earlier prohibitions and the snare of idolatry, an Israelite man openly brought a Midianite woman into the camp. (Commentators infer...

  • Holy Boundaries

    April 24, 2003 | 8:00 pm

    This week's Torah portion includes the verse: "Do not lie with a man as with a woman. It is an abomination" (Leviticus 18:22).

    The subject is particularly at issue because the Conservative movement is now revisiting Jewish laws around homosexuality and the ordination of openly gay...

  • Why Keep Kosher?

    March 27, 2003 | 7:00 pm

    The end of this week's Torah portion supplies the major biblical reasons for kashrut: "For I am God....

    You shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy.... For I am God who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God.... To distinguish between the ritually impure...

  • Speaking of Evil—and of Acting

    June 10, 1999 | 8:00 pm

    For the last few months, I have been involved with "Speaking of Evil," an original play based on the life of Kurt Gerstein. Gerstein was a member of the Waffen S.S., one of the most deadly and heartless arms of the Third Reich. According to his memoirs and letters, he entered the...
  • Torah Portion

    June 4, 1998 | 8:00 pm

    It is wonderful to volunteer more, do more, commit more. But our tradition, with love and practicality, offers this caution: Check first that your basic obligations are met.

    Who is greater: a person who is obligated to perform a certain act...

  • Torah Portion

    March 26, 1998 | 7:00 pm

    Not long ago, Burt Visotzky and Bill Moyerspresented a television series on the Book of Genesis. A colleaguejoked about their remarkable success. "Sure, the series inspiredinterest, debate and, for many, a