Jewish Journal

Letters to the Editor: High Holy Days, UN-Vote, Palestine

Posted on Sep. 21, 2011 at 5:34 pm

Blank-slate Rabbis

I agree in general with Dennis Prager’s article “When Rabbis Politicize the High Holy Days” (Sept. 16). The question is, where is the threshold? So I pose the following question to Dennis: In the early 1960s, would sermons regarding the civil rights movement (Martin Luther King, Freedom Riders, etc.) have also been inappropriate? Including sermons advocating passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964?

I certainly realize that the specific issues Dennis mentions in his article are not comparable to this one. But my question is, would the civil rights issue also fall within Dennis’ statement that “anyone who attends my services will be entering a politics-free zone”?

Amiel Shulsinger
El Monte

I will agree with Mr. Prager that a rabbi who fails to inspire his listeners to engage in the deep self-work of the Days of Awe has failed his community. However, it is folly to suggest that discussing our individual responsibilities regarding war and peace, or hunger, or the plight of the stranger, the widow and the orphan is not a critical part of answering “what do I need to do in order to be a better person?” Mr. Prager may disagree, but the Torah certainly doesn’t, and neither do the Prophets. Our sacred literature addresses these issues as matters of religious obligation in no uncertain terms, and a rabbi who fails to inspire his listeners to include them in their High Holy Days self-search has failed his community no less than the rabbi who speaks only of such issues from the bimah.

There are, no doubt, rabbis who exploit the bimah by promoting their personal politics. But most rabbis who periodically speak about the matters of the day seek to refract society’s most pressing issues honestly through the lens of the Jewish tradition, regardless of whether that exploration leads to a liberal or conservative conclusion. That is what rabbis have always been charged to do — use our textual history as a means for interpreting and responding to the new circumstances of contemporary life.

Even Mr. Prager himself does not actually believe that “moral and religious introspection” can be wholly disconnected from political matters. If he did, he wouldn’t have written in this same publication just this past June that “liberal policies actually diminish a society’s moral character,” and that “if you want to do good, (liberalism) is largely awful.” I’m afraid that Mr. Prager will have to choose between his June position and this more recent one, as both cannot be simultaneously true.

The debate regarding how best to employ the Jewish tradition to inspire soulful reflection about the responsibilities of citizenship is a worthy one. However, it is not aided by partisan proclamations so grand that they defy any possibility of substantiation. Mr. Prager obviously can’t pretend to have any idea whether “rabbis with conservative political beliefs do not use their pulpit to advance their political agenda,” but he makes the generalization anyway. So, too, does he assert that “separation of pulpit and politics is a conservative value, not a liberal one,” when he knows full well that there are plenty of American houses of worship in which the pulpit is passionately and unapologetically used to support religious beliefs that lead to conservative public policy.

Mr. Prager, we understand that your profession requires you to say and write some truly outrageous things to generate the kind of buzz that measured argumentation can’t. But please know that many of us believe that the clearest demonstration of our society’s moral descent is not liberal or conservative politics; it is the decay of our discourse into demonization. If we truly want to become better people, we would all be well served to refrain from making sweeping generalizations that lampoon our ideological adversaries and transform the exchange of ideas into a contact sport.

Rabbi Ken Chasen
Leo Baeck Temple
Los Angeles

Dennis Prager responds:

Amiel Shulsinger asks the $64,000 question: When is a subject of such overriding moral significance that, even if it also political, a rabbi needs to address it from the pulpit? The answer is that good people can differ about when a rabbi should talk politics. Clearly, one would have expected rabbis to speak against slavery, for example. But when left-wing rabbis make a habit of doing so — calling political issue after issue a matter of social justice and morally urgent — they have abused their pulpit.

Unlike Amiel Shulsinger’s measured response, Rabbi Chasen ends his disagreement with my column with an ad hominem attack. In condescending fashion, the rabbi writes: “Mr. Prager, we understand that your profession requires you to say and write some truly outrageous things to generate the kind of buzz that measured argumentation can’t.”

I doubt that Rabbi Chasen has a clue about my profession or about me as a radio talk-show host. If he actually listened to my show, he would retract what he wrote. Likewise, my Salem Radio Network colleagues — Bill Bennett, Michael Medved and Hugh Hewitt (a professor of Constitutional law) – speak in measured, thoughtful ways.

And here is the kicker: After his attack on my profession and on me, Rabbi Chasen condemns those who “lampoon our ideological adversaries” and laments “the decay of our discourse into demonization.”

The UN-Vote

When my husband slapped the paper down on the table today and said, “Cancel our subscription, I cannot read the rest of Rob Eshman’s editorial” (“UN-Vote,” Sept. 16), I picked up the paper expecting to see a refutation of President Obama labeled as “that well-known Israel hater,” later in the article. Instead, the same slander is repeated in the fourth paragraph.

Usually good with words and believing that we should hear all sides of an argument, this calumny makes me sick. Please return my subscription money, or send me a personal note of explanation. It is never too late for teshuvah. If I have offended Mr. Eshman, I am sorry. Now it is his turn.

Judith Aronson
via e-mail

Let’s see: Eshman writes an article quoting some nut job who writes against Obama as an example of everyone’s opinion as to how Obama hurts the possibility of Israeli/Palestinian peace by his policy choices. How about quoting some sane people who make a great case for Obama’s poor policy decisions vis-a-vis the peace process?

Let’s go to his other point, where he doesn’t think how a U.N. vote for Palestinian statehood would hurt Israel. Nothing else needs to be said except that the Palestinians who won the last election (Hamas) are not only against bringing this to the U.N. but also deny Israel’s right to exist at all and the unification agreement between Hamas and Fatah has not yet (and probably never will) been ratified ... and this process ends in what?

Bill Bender
via e-mail

“The Israelis cannot have security at the expense of Palestinian freedom.”

Nonsense. Have we not seen the whole Bush doctrine of one nation attempting to safeguard its liberty by promoting and supporting its advancement in the world?

“Palestinian freedom” is a crass oxymoron. Freedom cannot be given to anyone; it must be claimed. Freedom is not an artifact for a state that does not exist, nor ever will. And the chief hindrance to everyone recognizing this truth is the warmongering Arab and Muslim states hostile to the existence of Israel, forbidding the refugees in the West Bank to enter Jordan or the other surrounding Arab states to establish their own identity.

Besides, those living in the West Bank enjoy more freedom under the military supervision of Israel than they would ever hope to receive in another Arab state, created by fiat by micromanaging political players who do not appreciate that the ground rules have changed forever for Israeli-Arab peace negotiations.

Arthur Christopher Schaper

Politics on the Bimah

As a fellow member of the Board of Rabbis Executive committee who has successfully advocated for the board to take positions on certain political issues, I differed with Rabbi Vogel’s conclusion that rabbis should remain carefully neutral when speaking from the bimah (“Politics on the Bimah,” Sept. 9). At Stephen S. Wise Temple, a large portion of my responsibilities includes engaging our membership in political activism for social justice. In that capacity, I often speak about issues such as immigration reform, climate change, budgetary decisions and advocacy for public education, to name a few. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote the following:

… any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the economic conditions that damn the soul, the social conditions that corrupt men, and the city governments that cripple them, is a dry, dead, do-nothing religion in need of new blood. For it overlooks the basic fact that man is a biological being with a physical body. This must stand as a principle in any doctrine of man.

— Martin Luther King Jr., “The Measure of a Man,” Minneapolis: Fortress Press (1959)

I fear that the risk for religious leaders who do not speak out on major social issues of our days is to make religion irrelevant. Religions are concerned with morality and ethics, and public policy reflects particular values. Having said that, religion is an interpretive means of expression, so, it goes without saying that the ideas that one religious leader culls from the words of his or her faith are a product of that person’s identity and beliefs. Therefore, it is incumbent upon religious leaders to maintain respect for divergent views. I cherish the opinions of those who take the time to thoughtfully articulate their disagreements with a position that I might assert. Often their perspectives refine my thoughts on an issue. I believe that congregations are places that can reclaim a civil discourse on vital issues and restore what many feel has been lost in our society by modeling respectful disagreement. When speaking from the pulpit, one must model that civil mode of discourse. Dismissiveness, derision or misrepresentation of opposing positions is not productive nor does it reflect that civility. It is not becoming or warranted to support parties, political leaders or partisan issues, because it does inflame passions and becomes more divisive than thought-provoking. However, to invite congregants to become engaged in the public arena and to wrestle with the meaning of their religious identity when they assert those positions is among the highest callings of a rabbi and the deepest expression of our spirituality.

Rabbi Ron Stern
via e-mail

Jewish Home

In answer to the proposed question of how do we maintain programs when funding is pulled back (“Turning 100: Los Angeles Jewish Home Has Ambitious Growth Plans,” Sept. 16), I feel the efforts of the vast amount of volunteers were not recognized as a vital force in helping to maintain programs at the Home. These volunteers give of themselves in many tireless ways. They are out in our Jewish community educating others about the values of the Home and accepting donations from helpful contributors. With these donations, many projects are accomplished, such as the Red Hat event pictured in your article.

Please continue to highlight the Jewish Home’s 100 years of caring for our growing elderly community.

Anne Geffner
via e-mail

Missing Al Jolson

In Tom Tugend’s Article on Al Jolson (“Two Yiddishe Boys and a Bissel of Berlin,” Sept. 9), I’m surprised to see no mention of the 1946 classic film “The Jolson Story” and 1949’s “Jolson Sings Again,” which brought Jolson back from obscurity to the public eye. Ironically, in the same issue, Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia Pictures,  who idolized Al Jolson and was responsible for both films, was mentioned.

Eddie Cress

Wrestling With the Yetzer Hara

Rabbi Barclay’s interpretation of Parashat Ki Tetze was very informative (“Ultimate Fighting Strategies,” Sept. 9).

However, I would submit that the Holy Scriptures provides a more effective and final way for us to overcome yetzer hara in our midst.

Consider the joyful verse of the Prophet Isaiah:

“Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on thee, because he trusteth in thee.” (Isaiah 26:3)

In the original text, “mind” renders “yetzer” in the original text, a notion far more encompassing than our mere rational intellect. Our mind, our imagination, anything framed within us is at perfect peace when we lean on, or rest on the Lord.

This perfect peace is far more encompassing than most modern translations permit. The original text reads “Shalom Shalom,” perfect peace, superlative, unassailable peace, as well as health and wealth, consummate desires devoutly wished by every human heart.

Consider also the wisdom of King Solomon:

“Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.” (Proverbs 3:5)

Just as in Isaiah’s song, Solomon’s word for trust is “betach,” which speaks to security, confidence and boldness! Whereas to lean on one’s own understanding, sadly, implies leaning on ourselves, and we are but dust, and “the imagination [yetzer] of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” (Genesis 8:21)

Rather than leaning on our own merits and obedience, it would appear that YHWH intended for us to trust Him, and to trust in Him completely, not in our own merits, efforts or good intentions.

Arthur Christopher Schaper

Between Turkey and Israel

Israel has often relied on the secularized Islamic nation of Turkey for support (“No End in Sight for Downward Spiral,” Sept. 9).

Sadly, in the midst of a growing, and more religiously radicalized Turkish government, Israel is losing its favored status with this erstwhile Middle Eastern ally.

In the wake of the critical Palmer Reports, Israel has nothing to be ashamed of. The flotilla heading for Gaza posed a great security risk then, and the Jewish state had every right, as well as necessity, to ensure that the cargo and crew entering the vicinity would not engender an ominous threat.

At this point, the State of Israel must remember that in the midst of hostile states who have breathed nothing but her annihilation, she has remained stalwart and strong. The brief shake-up in political alliances must not induce the Netanyahu government, nor Israeli citizens, to back down from protecting the interests and integrity of their nation. A well-protected, assertive Jewish state, now matter how isolated at the moment, still remains in the best interests of the international community, including the idealistic Middle Eastern protesters who have wrought the Arab spring, which is currently mellowing into a more dubious autumn of political transition and turmoil.

Arthur Christopher Schaper

9/11 Conspiracy

At what point will individuals cease to blame the Jews for every hardship and catastrophe?

The ludicrous allegations of Jew-plotting in the 9/11 attacks (“Anti-Semitic Conspiracy Theories About 9/11 Persist,” Sept. 9) strikes one as so sophomoric, if not inane, that the lunacy littered throughout the czarist-forged “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” at least has the nefarious merit of insidious creativity.

Why continue to puzzle over the archetype “original instigators” of the vicious attack that rocked this nation’s complacent sense of security? Bin Laden and company had plotted to topple the Twin Towers before, then succeeded in blowing up United States’ embassies and military craft up until that fateful September morning.

No matter who ultimately instigated the heinous scheme, Al-Qaeda operatives took shameful advantage of a confused security network left unrepaired when President Bill Clinton left office. The Islamic radicals hijacked American aircraft, which in 50 minutes could have been neutralized following more responsive efforts from our federal aviation network.

Notwithstanding the egregious errors of the United States government to safeguard this nation, President Bush and Obama did not rest until they had prosecuted a full military response to those attacks, wiping out the Taliban in Afghanistan, executing Al-Qaeda operatives throughout the Middle East, and finally slaying the Playboy Saudi Arabian who had been leading these wicked terrorists all this time.

Rather than debunking the anti-Semitic cant implicating Jews, Judaism and the Jewish state in 9/11, why don’t the American press corps and United States government promote the anti-terrorist reconnaissance employed by the State of Israel, right down to the armed guard who boards every plane leaving El-Al? Last time I checked, terrorists have not hijacked a plane taking off from Tel Aviv.

Arthur Christopher Schaper

How Did This Happen to America?

Mr. Kaplan’s snobbish rhetoric is appalling and disappointing (“How Did This Happen to America?” Sept. 9).

How can this professor of media relations begin to blame the near-nascent Tea Party movement for the stalling of our government? What have the Democrats offered in response that would assist the American people and restore the grandeur and prosperity of this country?

Contrary to his elite and smug invective, the United States has not become “captive to a band of ideologues and fundamentalists.” We were attacked by such people on Sept. 11, 2001.

And how in the world can this man malign the frustrating genius of our Constitution, with its checks and balances and division of powers, as the root cause of our nation’s woes?

Like many progressive liberals, Mr. Kaplan targets the washed-up old-fashioned framers of the Constitution, whose “sclerotic” system of checks and balances apparently fails to take into account the recriminations of human ambition, still very much on display in this “we-are-the-change-we-have-been-waiting-for” Obama administration.

The Tea Party movement emerged partly in response to the corporate cronyism that has throttled the Beltway with backroom deals and pork barrel spending, which exploded during the Bush administration, and astronomically so during the current presidency.

In typical liberal-elitist fashion, Kaplan denounces Joe the Plummer as a mindless victim of “spectator democracy,” which hardly describes the galvanized Tea Party movement, a dedicated and growing populist movement that has channeled the rising national frustration with deficit spending, erupting national debt and outrageously unfunded entitlements into significant electoral reversals.

The only “bewildered herd” in the current political mix-up is the knee-jerk liberal mainstream media that refuses to acknowledge the blunt obvious: Obama-Keynesian economic policies are further bankrupting this country and dragging us down the road to serfdom.

We the People refuse to be taken down such a hateful, tyrannical path. Our obstinate tenacity to constitutional government does not constitute the majority of Americans as a mindless horde giving into the flimsy props of corporate-financed campaigning.

Arthur Christopher Schaper

Many authoritative and highly literate persons have written recently concerning the woes of the U.S.A. and their causes.  But none have presented so precisely and concisely as you. “How Did This Happen to America” nails it right between the eyes of those who refuse to open theirs. There leaves little doubt that our distraction will be our downfall. Perhaps that will be the awakening needed to return us to that which is significant.

Ronald L. Goldstein
Thousand Oaks

Pleading Religion

I wonder how Rabbi Moshe Zigelman (“Jewish Law Goes to Court,” Sept. 16) would respond to the following verse in the Torah:

“That which is altogether just shalt thou follow, that thou mayest live, and inherit the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee. (Deuteronomy 16:20)

The original text rendered by “that which is altogether just” reads “Tzedek tzedek.” The repetition of “Tzedek” (“righteousness” or “justice”) therefore implies perfect, superlative justice.

No Jewish law or commentary can break or compromise the Torah. If perfect justice demands that a Rabbi inform against other ultra-Orthodox Rabbim, he does not have the shameless comfort of shielding himself behind human law and tradition.

Arthur Christopher Schaper

Blank-slate Rabbis

I read Dennis Prager’s highly politicized High Holy Days article (“When Rabbis Politicize the High Holy Days,” Sept. 16) in which he tells rabbis not to politicize the High Holy Days. I noted his statement, “Because separation of pulpit and politics is a conservative value, not a liberal one” (As an aside, Dennis, dependent clauses cannot be sentences). Indeed, there are no examples in this country in which conservative politics are joined to evangelical pulpits. I heard him, a talk-radio host, accountable to neither board nor congregant, remind me that principled stands in politically heterodox congregations are without courage.

Am I the only one who realizes how hypocritical these statements are? How can one take an article like this seriously?

Somewhere in here was an interesting question about the purpose of drashot on the High Holy Days. One notes the irony: The question was completely obscured by Prager’s politics.

Rabbi Scott Perlo
West Los Angeles

Dear Editor: I was with Dennis Prager as he admonished rabbis against making political statements from the pulpit — until he got to “... the left-wing rabbi has everything to gain from giving a sermon against ... carbon emissions.” The issue of carbon emissions, and the climate change they inflict, is not political. It is accepted scientific fact. The science has been politicized, manipulated and distorted for the advantage of politicians and their parties. And it will likely, and unfortunately, take politics to enact the kind of legislation necessary to make significant progress toward alleviating the already disastrous effects of climate change here in the United States and around the world. But when a rabbi implores his congregation to change their behavior in order to do all they can to take care of the Earth —which, according to Genesis, God has given us to “guard,” not exploit — that is not a political statement. It is a message quite in keeping with our Holy Days’ themes of personal and communal transformation.
Larry Braman
Los Angeles

Finally, someone has the acumen to fault liberal-leaning religious leaders for their political machinations.

Political discourse should never allow individuals to excuse themselves from improving their own lives and those of friends and family. We may not have it within ourselves to change the world, but we can change ourselves, and tending our own garden will have a much greater salutary effect than lecturing the earthly powers-that-be.

I share Mr. Prager’s condescending critique of liberal rabbis who evince very little courage when demanding liberal reform before the herds of their like-minded liberal congregants. Sadly, the same sickening sycophancy occurs in all left-leaning religious establishments, not just among the Jews.

“If Judaism and liberalism are identical, who needs Judaism?” Right on! Liberalism, if nothing else, is a manufactured, man-centered religion, espousing the failed notion that people are basically good, and that with the right amount of state intervention and government tinkering, we can make the world a better place.

According to the Torah, we are called to be holy, set apart from a dying world, not to become ingratiated with it. Every religious leader, no matter what the dictates of his faith, must persuade others to the same.

Arthur Christopher Schaper


A profile of Eric J. Diamond (“The Business of Spirituality,” Sept. 16) incorrectly stated that Don Rickles was president of Sinai Temple in 1983. He was not; Aaron Fenton was president of the synagogue at that time.

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