The Rabbi Reform Jews should revere-but few even know his name

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The Jewish world lost a giant today, with the death of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein at the age of 81.

Rabbi Lichtenstein was the head of the Etz Hayyim Yeshiva, which is located in the settlement of Alon Shvut, in the West Bank.  Rabbi Lichtenstein was an Orthodox religious Zionist, who believed that Jews should be allowed to live on the West Bank, as it was part of biblical Israel.   He was the most respected leader of what would come to be called “Modern Orthodoxy” and his influence is felt today in such institutions as Yeshivat Hovevei Torah, the forward-thinking Orthodox Rabbinical school founded by Avi Weiss.  He was also the most powerful and respected voice for demanding that religious Jews live according to the highest ethical and moral standards, including in the treatment of the Palestinians and in the conduct of war.  He courageously took on other rabbinic authorities who he felt were distorting the moral nature of halakhic Judaism.  Every Reform Jew should know his name, and revere his memory.

He’s no Jonas brother

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The business news reports today that Bernard Bernanke, former Fed Chairman, will be accepting a senior position at a major Wall Street Hedge Fund firm.

I am old enough to recall a time when some prominent men (and they were mostly men, back then) considered it unseemly to “cash in” on their period of national service.  At most, they would accept a university position and teach for the remainder of their careers.

Now, it would be astonishing if a prominent official did not trade on their prominence and more importantly, their connections to make vast fortunes in the private sector.  Actually this is one of the last truly “bipartisan” actions today-everyone does it regardless of affiliation.

I seem to recall that Dr Jonas Salk refused to sell the polio vaccine that he discovered, believing that it would be immoral to personally enrich himself from it-he literally gave it away.

How quaint.

Like the old joke goes, yes, adultery is still in there

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When the Boxing Rabbi was about 16 or so, we rented a house in Marblehead, Mass for the summer.  The owners had left a shelf of Reader’s Digest “Condensed Books” on one shelf, and to this bored, restless adolescent, it provided some diversion for what seemed an unending two months.  During that summer, I must have read twenty novels or so, of which I can only recall two- “Seven Days in May” and “The Man” -which imagined a future when America had a black president.  (In that novel, the only way a black man would become president was if the President, the Vice President, and the Speaker of the House all died, which happens in the first five pages).

I mention this only because I read today that John E Walsh has died.  Mr Walsh was the author of the Reader’s Digest Condensed Bible-which I never knew about because by the time it appeared we had switched rental homes.

According to his obituary, Mr Walsh eliminated about 40 percent of the Hebrew Bible and 25 percent of the New Testament.  The goal was to make the Bible more accessible to readers.  However, all ten commandments are still in there, so no need to rush out to grab a copy.

Today in the Boxing Gym it was not about Boxing

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As readers of this blog may know, I train in a gym whose membership is primarily African-American.

This morning, groups of men continually gathered and spoke in quiet tones about the horrific video of a South Carolina police officer shooting a black man running away from him.

The conversation was mournful and serious.  At one point, one member remarked, “it really does seem that they are trying to kill us”.  Another replied, “Are there simply too many of us for them to tolerate”?

The year is 2015, just days after Easter.  Today in the gym it was not about boxing.

My Letter Printed in Today’s Times (April 2 2015)

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To the Editor:

David Brooks argues that we should be deeply polite to those who use the excuse of their religious freedoms to refuse service to gays and lesbians. He equates this “deep politeness” to the courtesy extended by a man to an Orthodox Jewish woman who will not shake his hand. But this is a false equivalency.

The Orthodox woman will not shake the hand of a man not her husband because of her own spirituality, her own belief in the need to maintain her modesty. There is no animus directed against the man. The bigoted merchant who denies service to a gay person is expressing hatred of the other and is showing no spiritual humility of his own. The equivalency is false.


Westfield, N.J.

Hoosier Hate

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The Boxing Rabbi is trying to wrap his head around the “Religious Freedom” law passed by the Indiana Legislature and signed by Gov Mike Pence-and all I feel is stone cold anger.

This is bigotry wrapped in the shiny bow of religion.  “My religion says I can refuse service to gays?  That’s perfectly fine, its in the Bible, you know”.

What about refusing service to Jews- “They killed our Lord-it’s in the Bible you know”.

What about refusing service to  African-Americans- “They are marked with the curse of Ham-it’s in the Bible you know”.

When I read the news yesterday, what came immediately came to mind was this famous picture of future Georgia Governor Lester Maddox “refusing service” to an African American gentleman who came to his restaurant.  Note the gun.


In Praise of Longevity

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In my sport of choice, boxing, longevity is measured in very small numbers. Most fighters have careers that last only a few years. Some are successful for only a few months, and for virtually all except a select group, their career is completely over when they reach their mid-twenties. In addition, if one can manage to retire in good health, with minimal effects of repeated blows, and financially secure, it is a small miracle and one that few in this difficult sport ever achieve.

While the rabbinate is hardly akin to the fast-paced and physically brutal sport of boxing, it is undeniably taxing physically, mentally and spiritually, and its effects take a toll on the rabbi (and too often the rabbi’s family). Which is why I was so moved last week  when we gathered for the annual Hebrew Union College breakfast at the CCAR Convention.

For those that have not yet attended this event, the highlight of the HUC breakfast is the “roll-call” of classes, beginning with the most recently ordained.  To watch the progression of classes from those ordained in recent years, progressing back through the decades is both joyful and celebratory. But as we approach the moment to recognize colleagues ordained for forty and fifty and even fifty plus years, joy and celebration turns to awe and admiration.

As I have made my way through the congregational rabbinate, I have learned along the way that longevity in this profession is a combination of careful planning, deliberate self-care, wise choices, strong familial support, and yes, plain damn luck.   Rather than fearing and dreading the end of our active rabbinate and retirement, we should embrace retirement as a necessary and vital stage in a rabbinic career, as much a part of the life arc of a rabbi as ordination and pulpit or organizational transitions. To know colleagues who have entered retirement whole in spirit, mind, body, and economic security is to know role models worthy of emulation, admiration, and inspiration. Sadly I have known too many colleagues who retire broken in spirit, continually bitter in mind and emotion, damaged in physical health, and even struggling financially. My heart aches in pain at every story of such a colleague. To bear witness this Tuesday morning to those rabbis who have achieved the end of their full time rabbinate healthy in mind, unbroken in spirit and hope, and even with myriad physical ailments greeting each new day with strength and determination is a joy and a privilege.  It is a testament to the ability of each one of us, given enough wisdom, guidance, support and some plain old luck, to make it there as well.   To my older colleagues, graduates of rabbinic classes of decades earlier who have achieved so much and have embraced their retirement with the same skill and wisdom that they served the Jewish people, you are all “champions” in my book.