Category: Culture

The Clerical Capriciousness of the Israeli Rabbanut

Back when I was a pulpit rabbi in New York, I used to write letters of Jewishness for congregants and friends about to make aliyah under the law of return. There had been no issues with the letters I had written, so it was a bit of a surprise when I made aliyah in 2014 that the letter that was written on my behalf was initially rejected.

I joked at the time that it was a conspiracy, but in truth, I assumed it was more of a bureaucratic paperwork problem1 and something I’d have to get used to once I got to Israel.2

For a few years, this made for a funny story I’d share from time to time about the quirks of the aliyah process and the bureaucracy of the Israeli government. But on June 15th, 2020, I received a phone call that was far less amusing.

YUTOPIA’s Favorite Books – 2018

One of the things I still enjoy from social media is the book recommendations, either directly from friends or from reviews I see shared. Every now and again I get exposed to books or authors whom I otherwise would never have encountered, and this exposure has helped me expand my knowledge and perspective about many topics.

Since I enjoy book recommendations, a few years ago I started compiling my favorite books from the previous year, initially as a Facebook post, then a Twitter thread, and now that the blog is back up and running, I decided to start posting them here.

The following isn’t a comprehensive list of books I’ve read or even a ranking of the “best” books. Rather, these are the books I enjoyed reading the most. This does not even mean I agree with everything in these books, only that for various reasons I found myself more engaged and generally appreciated the experience of having read these.

Enjoy at your leisure!

Why the Israel/Diaspora Division Runs Deeper than People Realize

Even from my distant vantage point of living in Israel, I believe it is obvious that the Trump presidency has either created new divisions within the Jewish community or at least expanded the existing ones. One of the biggest points of divergence is over policies pertaining to Israel, where divisions have been growing steadily for decades. A recent poll by the American Jewish Committee helpfully quantifies the current extent.

The gap between American Jews and Israelis regarding President Trump’s approach to Israel is profound. While 77% of Israeli Jews approve of how the president is handling U.S.-Israel relations, only 34% of American Jews do. A majority, 57%, of U.S. Jews disapprove, while only 10% of Israelis do.

On the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move its embassy there, 85% of Israeli Jews, compared with 46% of U.S. Jews, support the decision, while 7% of Israelis and 47% of U.S. Jews oppose it.

Single-issue voters may continue to support Trump if they view him favorably on that single issue despite deep disagreements over any (or all) other policies. This single-mindedness may seem incomprehensible to others considering how much else needs to be overlooked or dismissed.

I noticed some examples of this tension coming to bear in the aftermath of the horrific shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Many in the media explicitly blame Trump for his incendiary rhetoric and Trump had been previously criticized for normalizing white supremacy.

Journalist Julia Ioffe not only blamed Trump for the attack, but also called out American Jews.

The implication here is that supporting a president for policy in one area may have disastrous consequences for people in another area. In this case, support for moving the US embassy to Jerusalem comes at the cost of American Jewish lives.

Writing in The Atlantic, Franklin Foer calls for a variant of excommunication of Trump supporting Jews because their doing so puts other Jews at risk.

Any strategy for enhancing the security of American Jewry should involve shunning Trump’s Jewish enablers. Their money should be refused, their presence in synagogues not welcome. They have placed their community in danger.

Can Jews really be this apathetic or willfully blind towards the physical danger of fellow Jews? I suggest the answer is sadly yes, with ample evidence from Israel.

Many readers may be familiar with Shira Banki, the sixteen-year-old who was murdered at the Jerusalem Pride Parade in 2015. Her murder was met with an outpouring of support and tributes not only in Israel but in the US as well (one person I knew even wrote a song dedicated to her). 

In contrast, I suspect few will recognize the name of Hallel Yaffa Ariel, a thirteen-year-old who was murdered in her home in 2016. But because Hallel was a “settler” even those who bothered to acknowledge her death felt the need to include qualifiers and disclaimers.

The reality is that even if we recognize that all human lives are of value, certain deaths or tragedies affect us emotionally more than others. But I suspect that people notice whose deaths are mourned, or more precisely, those who are worthy of mourning, and those whose are not.

Similarly, many of those who are currently appalled at the rising fascism in the United States have also supported a Palestinian state in which the current constitution, makes Islam the official religion, derives legislation, from Shari’a, imposes a death penalty on selling land to Jews, and currently pays people to murder Jews

For as complicated as Israeli/Palestinian politics may be, if we are going by Foer’s criteria for exclusion that, “They have placed their community in danger” then it would not be surprising for Israelis on the ground to be less sympathetic to those who have pushed for a Palestinian state as currently constructed (as opposed to a liberal democratic Palestinian state). Those who have excused totalitarianism when others are threatened should not be surprised when those same others are less than sympathetic to their moral alarmism.

In other words, when you see comments that certain Jews only care about their ideology even as other Jews are living under attack, consider that maybe this has been going on for a while now with the roles reversed. This should not be taken as a justification, but I believe how people have reacted to drastically different lived experiences may explain much about why the Israel/Diaspora relationship is as strained as it is.

Book Review: What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic

I recently wondered on Facebook how people define religious “authenticity,” meaning actions or beliefs which reflect an (or the) genuine manifestation of a religion. This is a question I frequently consider regarding Judaism, particularly Orthodox Judaism, where adherents perpetually argue over which (or more accurately, whose) opinions, interpretations, beliefs, or practices define the franchise of being “Orthodox.”  These sorts of questions are generally internal to Orthodox Judaism, where affiliates claim authority to determine the boundaries and legitimacy of a nominally shared identification.

At the same time, I have been more attuned to the similar arguments over what is “authentic” Islam,  which have become commonplace in the public sphere. It does not take much effort to find studies and screeds differentiating between “moderate” or “fundamentalist” Islam, or those who assert with confidence that there is no meaningful difference between them.

As someone who has had an insider’s view of the debate within Judaism, I have been equally fascinated and frustrated by the parallel discussions regarding Islam. Many of the same people who can identify dozens of denominations and sub-denominations within Judaism (or Christianity) can only speak of Islam as single, unified phenomenon. Many of those who see fit to define Islam based solely on English translations of selected Quranic verses would quickly dismiss anyone whose conception of Judaism was based on similarly selected English translations of the Bible. Complicating matters even further is that as I have read the works of actual scholars of Islam, my own illiteracy in the subject matter precludes me from evaluating the merits of any statement, while my experience in reading Jewish scholarship precludes me from trusting anyone at face value.

With this in mind, I am exceptionally grateful for the contribution of the late Shahab Ahmed’s What is Islam?: The Importance of Being Islamic, 1 an earnest attempt at not only defining Islam, but essentially reclaiming it.


  1. I came across the book via a review by Prof. Noah Feldman, a colleague of Ahmed who assisted with the final stages of the book, as Ahmed had already fallen ill before its completion.

The Existential Religious Challenge of Same-Sex Marriage

I’m not a coward, I’ve just never been tested.
I’d like to think that if I was I would pass.
Look at the tested, and think there but for the grace go I.
Might be a coward, I’m afraid of what I might find out.
The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, “The Impression That I Get”

With the recent US Supreme Court decision Obergefell v. Hodges declaring same-sex marriage to be a constitutionally protected right, religious organizations are understandably concerned as to how they will be affected by this new legal reality.  In addition to public statements issued by The Rabbinical Council of America and the Orthodox Union, several rabbinic colleagues have expressed similar concerns shared by other religious leaders regarding what this ruling might mean for their own practice, particularly if they will now be forced to officiate or facilitate a practice which violates their religious beliefs. 1

Aside from these concerns over government interference in religious affairs, the Supreme Court’s ruling may have more salient ramifications on a communal level. Specifically, with same-sex marriage legalized nationally, Orthodox homosexual couples may be more likely take advantage of the benefits such legal recognition provides. This new reality may create new tensions within communities where such couples may expect or demand religious recognition for their union.

While these concerns are currently dominating the discussion, my sense is that the attention is misplaced. I do not mean to be dismissive of the concerns of others, but I suggest the details are not nearly as significant as the underlying existential tensions.


  1. In 2011 when New York was about to legalize same-sex marriage, I argued that Orthodox Jews should not oppose such legislation but rather insist on religious protections.

Does Anti-Israel Mean Anti-Semitic? An Answer From Liberal Logic

With the current violence in Israel continuing without a clear end in sight, Israel is once again receiving support and criticism for its policies. One common refrain found among Israel’s supporters is that the inordinate amount of criticism levied against Israel is actually a form of anti-Semitism. When “anti-Israel” protesters reportedly shout “Kill the Jews” while looting Jewish businesses, it is easy to reach this conclusion. But aside from these violent outbreaks, is there any validity to the argument that the more civil rhetorical attacks against Israel are rooted in anti-Semitism? In her Remarks Before 2010 Conference on Combating Anti-Semitism, Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Hannah Rosenthal offers criteria for distinction:

Our State Department uses Natan Sharansky’s framework for identifying when someone or a government crosses the line – when Israel is demonized, when Israel is held to different standards than the rest of the countries, and when Israel is delegitimized. These cases are not disagreements with a policy of Israel, this is anti-Semitism.[Emphasis added]

Writing for the New York Times in 2002, Thomas Friedman offered a similar contrast:

Criticizing Israel is not anti-Semitic, and saying so is vile. But singling out Israel for opprobrium and international sanction — out of all proportion to any other party in the Middle East — is anti-Semitic, and not saying so is dishonest.

There are no doubt other opinions and qualifications which answer this question, but I believe that for the Liberal Left – whose members tend to be some of Israel’s most vocal and vitriolic critics – the definitions cited above are justifiable based on how it views discrimination in other contexts, particularly regarding the US criminal justice system.

Mainomides’ / Rambam’s Haggadah

As a public service for those with shorter attention spans, here is the text of Maimonides’ Haggadah, which you will notice is slightly abridged from our popular versions. Feel free to compare and extrapolate what does and does not appear in the differnet editions.

רמב”ם הלכות חמץ ומצה נוסח ההגדה

נוסח ההגדה שנהגו בה ישראל בזמן הגלות כך הוא: מתחיל על כוס שני ואומר בבהילו יצאנו ממצרים הא לחמא עניא דאכלו אבהתנא בארעא דמצרים כל דכפין ייתי וייכול כל דצריך לפסח ייתי ויפסח, שתא הכא לשנה הבאה בארעא דישראל, שתא הכא עבדי לשתא דאתיא בני חורי.
מה נשתנה הלילה הזה מכל הלילות, שבכל הלילות אין אנו מטבילין אפילו פעם אחת והלילה הזה שתי פעמים, שבכל הלילות אנו אוכלים חמץ ומצה והלילה הזה כולו מצה, שבכל הלילות אנו אוכלים שאר ירקות והלילה הזה מרור, שבכל הלילות אנו אוכלין בין יושבין בין מסובין והלילה הזה כולנו מסובין.
עבדים היינו לפרעה במצרים ויוציאנו ה’ אלהינו משם ביד חזקה ובזרוע נטויה, ואילו לא הוציא הקדוש ברוך הוא את אבותינו ממצרים עדיין אנו ובנינו ובני בנינו משועבדים היינו לפרעה במצרים, ואפילו כולנו חכמים כולנו נבונים כולנו זקנים כולנו יודעים את התורה מצוה עלינו לספר ביציאת מצרים, וכל המאריך ביציאת מצרים הרי זה משובח.

מעשה ברבי אליעזר ורבי יהושע ורבי אלעזר בן עזריה ורבי עקיבה ורבי טרפון שהיו מסובין בבני ברק והיו מספרין ביציאת מצרים כל אותו הלילה עד שבאו תלמידיהם ואמרו להם רבותינו הגיע זמן קרית שמע של שחרית.

אמר להם רבי אלעזר בן עזריה הרי אני כבן שבעים שנה ולא זכיתי שתאמר יציאת מצרים בלילות עד שדרשה בן זומא, שנאמר +דברים ט”ז+ למען תזכור את יום צאתך מארץ מצרים כל ימי חייך, ימי חייך הימים, כל ימי חייך הלילות, וחכמים אומרים ימי חייך העולם הזה, כל ימי חייך להביא את ימות המשיח.

ברוך המקום שנתן תורה לישראל עמו, ברוך הוא, כנגד ארבעה בנים דברה תורה, אחד חכם, ואחד רשע, ואחד תם, ואחד שאינו יודע לשאל.

חכם מה הוא אומר: +דברים ו’+ מה העדות והחקים והמשפטים אשר צוה ה’ אלהינו אתכם, אף אתה אמור לו כהלכות הפסח אין מפטירין אחר הפסח אפיקומן.

רשע מה הוא אומר: +שמות י”ב+ מה העבודה הזאת לכם, לכם ולא לו, ולפי שהוציא את עצמו מן הכלל כפר בעיקר, אף אתה הקהה את שניו ואמור לו +שמות י”ג+ בעבור זה עשה ה’ לי בצאתי ממצרים, לי ולא לו, ואילו היה שם לא היה נגאל.

תם מה הוא אומר: +שמות י”ג+ מה זאת, ואמרת אליו בחזק יד הוציאנו ה’ ממצרים מבית עבדים.

ושאינו יודע לשאל את פתח לו, שנאמר +שמות י”ג+ והגדת לבנך ביום ההוא לאמר בעבור זה עשה ה’ לי בצאתי ממצרים, והגדת לבנך יכול מראש חדש, תלמוד לומר ביום ההוא, אי ביום ההוא יכול מבעוד יום, תלמוד לומר בעבור זה, לא אמרתי אלא בשעה שמצה ומרור מונחים לפניך.

מתחלה עובדי ע”ז היו אבותינו ועכשיו קרבנו המקום ב”ה לעבודתו, שנאמר +יהושע כ”ד+ ויאמר יהושע אל כל העם כה אמר ה’ אלהי ישראל בעבר הנהר ישבו אבותיכם מעולם תרח אבי אברהם ואבי נחור ויעבדו אלהים אחרים, ואקח את אביכם את אברהם מעבר הנהר ואולך אותו בכל ארץ כנען וארבה את זרעו ואתן לו את יצחק ואתן ליצחק את יעקב ואת עשו ואתן לעשו את הר שעיר לרשת אותו ויעקב ובניו ירדו מצרים.

ברוך שומר הבטחתו לישראל עמו, ברוך הוא, שהקדוש ברוך הוא מחשב את הקץ לעשות כמו שאמר לאברהם אבינו בין הבתרים, שנאמר +בראשית ט”ו+ ויאמר לאברם ידוע תדע כי גר יהיה זרעך בארץ לא להם ועבדום וענו אותם ארבע מאות שנה וגם את הגוי אשר יעבודו דן אנכי ואחרי כן יצאו ברכוש גדול.

היא שעמדה לאבותינו ולנו, שלא אחד בלבד עמד עלינו אלא בכל דור ודור עומדים עלינו לכלותינו והקדוש ברוך הוא מצילנו מידם.

צא ולמד מה בקש לבן הארמי לעשות ליעקב אבינו, שפרעה הרשע לא גזר אלא על הזכרים ולבן בקש לעקור את הכל, שנאמר +דברים כ”ו+ ארמי אובד אבי וירד מצרימה ויגר שם, מלמד שלא ירד להשתקע אלא לגור שם שנאמר +בראשית מ”ז+ ויאמרו אל פרעה לגור בארץ באנו כי אין מרעה לצאן אשר לעבדיך כי כבד הרעב בארץ כנען ועתה ישבו נא עבדיך בארץ גשן.

במתי מעט, כמו שנאמר +דברים י’+ בשבעים נפש ירדו אבותיך מצרימה ועתה שמך ה’ אלהיך ככוכבי השמים לרוב.
ויהי שם לגוי, מלמד שהיו ישראל מצויינין שם, גדול ועצום כמו שנאמר +שמות א’+ ובני ישראל פרו וישרצו וירבו ויעצמו במאד מאד ותמלא הארץ אותם.
ורב, כמו שנאמר +יחזקאל ט”ז+ רבבה כצמח השדה נתתיך ותרבי ותגדלי ותבאי בעדי עדיים שדים נכונו ושערך צמח ואת ערום ועריה.
וירעו אותנו המצרים, כמו שנאמר +שמות א’+ הבה נתחכמה לו פן ירבה והיה כי תקראנה מלחמה ונוסף גם הוא על שונאינו ונלחם בנו ועלה מן הארץ.
ויענונו, כמו שנאמר וישימו עליו שרי מסים למען ענותו בסבלותם ויבן ערי מסכנות לפרעה את פיתום ואת רעמסס.
ויתנו עלינו עבודה קשה, כמו שנאמר ויעבידו מצרים את בני ישראל בפרך.
ונצעק אל ה’ אלהי אבותינו, כמו שנאמר +שמות ב’+ ויהי בימים הרבים ההם וימת מלך מצרים ויאנחו בני ישראל מן העבודה ויזעקו ותעל שועתם אל האלהים מן העבודה.
וישמע ה’ את קולנו, כמו שנאמר וישמע אלהים את נאקתם ויזכור אלהים את בריתו את אברהם את יצחק ואת יעקב.
וירא את עניינו, זו פרישות דרך ארץ, כמו שנאמר וירא אלהים את בני ישראל וידע אלהים.
ואת עמלינו, אלו הבנים, כמו שנאמר כל הבן הילוד היאורה תשליכוהו וכל הבת תחיון, ואת לחצינו, זה הדוחק כמו שנאמר +שמות ג’+ וגם ראיתי את הלחץ אשר מצרים לוחצים אותם.
ויוציאנו ה’ ממצרים, לא על ידי מלאך לא על ידי שרף ולא על ידי שליח אלא הקדוש ברוך הוא בכבודו, שנאמר +שמות י”ב+ ועברתי בארץ מצרים בלילה הזה והכיתי כל בכור בארץ מצרים מאדם ועד בהמה ובכל אלהי מצרים אעשה שפטים אני ה’.
ביד חזקה, זה הדבר, כמו שנאמר +שמות ט’+ הנה יד ה’ הויה במקנך אשר בשדה בסוסים בחמורים בגמלים בבקר ובצאן דבר כבד מאד.
ובזרוע נטויה, זו החרב כמו שנאמר +דברי הימים א’ כ”א+ וחרבו שלופה בידו נטויה על ירושלם.
ובמורא גדול, זו גלוי שכינה, כמו שנאמר +דברים ד’+ או הנסה אלהים לבא לקחת לו גוי מקרב גוי במסות באותות ובמופתים ובמלחמה וביד חזקה ובזרוע נטויה ובמוראים גדולים ככל אשר עשה לכם ה’ אלהיכם במצרים לעיניך.
ובאותות, זה המטה, כמו שנאמר +שמות ד+ ואת המטה הזה תקח בידך אשר תעשה בו את האותות.
ובמופתים, זה הדם, כמו שנאמר +יואל ג’+ ונתתי מופתים בשמים ובארץ, דם ואש ותמרות עשן.

דבר אחר, ביד חזקה שתים, ובזרוע נטויה שתים, ובמורא גדול שתים, ובאותות שתים, ובמופתים שתים, אלו עשר מכות שהביא הקדוש ברוך הוא על המצרים במצרים, ואלו הן: דם צפרדע כנים ערוב דבר שחין ברד ארבה חשך מכת בכורות, רבי יהודה היה נותן בהם סימן דצ”ך עד”ש באח”ב.

רבן גמליאל אומר כל שלא אמר שלשה דברים אלו בפסח לא יצא ידי חובתו, פסח, מצה, ומרורים.
פסח שהיו אבותינו אוכלין בזמן שבית המקדש קיים על שם מה, על שם שפסח המקום על בתי אבותינו במצרים, שנאמר +שמות י”ב+ ואמרתם זבח פסח הוא לה’ אשר פסח על בתי בני ישראל במצרים בנגפו את מצרים ואת בתינו הציל ויקד העם וישתחוו.
מצה זו שאנו אוכלין על שם מה, על שם שלא הספיק בצקם של אבותינו להחמיץ עד שנגלה עליהם מלך מלכי המלכים הקדוש ברוך הוא וגאלם מיד, שנאמר +שמות י”ב+ ויאפו את הבצק אשר הוציאו ממצרים עוגות מצות כי לא חמץ כי גורשו ממצרים ולא יכלו להתמהמה וגם צדה לא עשו להם.
מרורים אלו שאנו אוכלים על שם מה, על שם שמררו המצרים את חיי אבותינו במצרים, שנאמר +שמות א’+ וימררו את חייהם בעבודה קשה בחומר ובלבנים ובכל עבודה בשדה את כל עבודתם אשר עבדו בהם בפרך.

ובכל דור ודור חייב אדם להראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים, שלא את אבותינו בלבד גאל אלא אף אותנו גאל, שנאמר +דברים ו’+ ואותנו הוציא משם למען הביא אותנו לתת לנו את הארץ אשר נשבע לאבותינו.

לפיכך אנו חייבים להודות להלל לשבח לפאר לרומם לגדל ולהדר ולנצח למי שעשה לנו ולאבותינו את כל הנסים האלו והוציאנו מעבדות לחירות ומשעבוד לגאולה ומיגון לשמחה ומאבל ליום טוב ומאפלה לאור גדול, ונאמר לפניו הללויה.

הללויה הללו עבדי ה’ הללו את שם ה’, יהי שם ה’ מבורך וכו’ עד חלמיש למעינו מים. ברוך אתה ה’ אלהינו מלך העולם אשר גאלנו וגאל את אבותינו ממצרים והגיענו ללילה הזה לאכול בו מצה ומרורים כן ה’ אלהינו ואלהי אבותינו יגיענו למועדים ולרגלים אחרים הבאים לקראתנו לשלום שמחים בבנין עירך וששים בעבודתך ונאכל שם מן הזבחים ומן הפסחים שיגיע דמם על קיר מזבחך לרצון ונודה לך שיר חדש על גאולתנו ועל פדות נפשנו, ברוך אתה ה’ גאל ישראל.

כסדר שמברכין וקוראים ההגדה בליל יום טוב ראשון של פסח כך מברכים וקוראים בליל השני של גליות, וכן חייבין בליל השני בארבעה כוסות ובשאר הדברים שנעשו בלילה הראשון. בריך רחמנא דסייען.

The Sins of the Sandy Hook Generation

“Dozens of people are gunned down each day in Springfield,
but until now none of them was important.” – The Simpsons

In the immediate aftermath of the horrific shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton CT, the country was unified in mourning. A seemingly local incident was viewed as a national tragedy, one which prompted much soul searching though not surprisingly little by way of answers. A common refrain I saw online was “there are no words” or “there is no answer – for indeed, who would dare offer any rationale justifying the murder of 20 children and 6 teachers.

In processing my own thoughts, there was one Talmudic passage which I found hard to ignore. B. Shabbat 33b records the following opinion:

When there are righteous men in a generation, they are taken for the sins of the generation. When there are no righteous in a generation, school children are taken for the generation.

As if the idea of vicarious atonement – that someone is punished to absolve others of their sins – is not theologically difficult itself, to imply that the blood of presumably innocent school children serve as some form of sacrifice for the benefit of the rest of the world is, at the very least, distasteful. And following an actual massacre of children, such an assertion would seem to be especially cruel. But after witnessing America’s reaction to the Sandy Hook shootings, it occurred to me that there may be some other truth to the Talmudic statement.

Consider for a moment just how many murders, or violent acts are committed worldwide with minimal coverage, let alone outrage. According to FBI statistics for US crime, there were 13,913 murders in 2011 and 14,103 murders in 2010, yet only a small percentage warranted national news coverage. Worldwide murders are obviousl higher depending on region, including violence against children. According to a 2008 World Health Organization report, approximately 120,000 children worldwide are treated for violence – which would exclude the number of incidents for which children are not treated – and yet relatively few of these incidents warrant our attention. In China school stabbings have been a shockingly frequent occurrence but they barely make the news in the US.

The sad reality is that murders are not uncommon in the world, nor are murders against children, and yet we as a nation remain unfazed. We can easily ignore the deaths of those in other countries because they’re not one of us. We excuse horrific acts of terror because after all they are part of a justified ideological struggle and one side or the other must deserve it somehow. The same is true for local gang violence, where the poor life choices of individuals naturally lead to their own demise.

For so many murders and acts of violence, we find ways to excuse or understand the actions such that we do not have to endure the pain of loss or human suffering. Consider the Sandy Hook shootings themselves. The six teachers who were killed were rightly praised as heroes, though I suspect they would not have received the honor they deserved had children not been included as victims. Furthermore, there was little sympathy for Nancy Lanza, the shooter’s mother and a victim in her own right, with one paper vilifying her saying “she created a monster.”

But when children are targeted, or more specifically our children are targeted, we lose all excuses. We cannot say that tragedies only happen “over there” in lawless countries when a shooting occurs in our own backyard. We cannot console ourselves as we do with adult murders that young children lived full lives. And with so many children being killed we cannot impose familiar narratives of ideology or racism which would otherwise explain or justify their senseless deaths.

For a few days this country overcame its apathy and jadedness and was unified in its sharing the morning of the needless loss of human life. Perhaps the sin of our generation is that it took the murders of 20 children to do so.

Why I’m Voting For Gary Johnson in 2012

Those who follow me on Facebook or Twitter know I try to keep up with politics, though mostly for entertainment value. But while I make plenty of snarky comments at the expense at the absurdities of Conservatives, Liberals, Democrats, and Republicans, few people actually know what I actually believe. Shockingly, some people have even inquired to know as to whom I’m planning to vote in the upcoming election. To that end I would like to share why I intend to vote for the Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson in the 2012 presidential election.

Let me stipulate two points at the outset. First, I am not writing as a “Rabbi” – that is I do not purport to represent my religion, denomination, synagogue, or any other religious organization with which I am affiliated. Second, this is not an endorsement.[1. Not that mine would make any difference.] I am not interested in advocacy nor do I intend to influence how people will vote, be they already decided or undecided. I am writing as a private relatively informed registered independent citizen with the intent to share a perspective. Nothing more, nothing less.

I suppose the first reason why one would vote for a candidate is that one agrees with his positions, and for the most part I do agree with the Libertarian ideology of limited government,[2. It’s important to stress “limited” does not mean “zero”] fiscal conservatism, social liberalism, and general freedom for individuals to make their own decisions and live with the consequences.[3. I am not about to defend the Libertarian ideology in general or from the Jewish vision of an ideal society. I will just say that I do not believe than any grand vision of what one considers a “just” or “moral” society can be legislated effectively, at least not with unjust or immoral unintended consequences. Anyone interested in my vision of an ethical Jewish society should please listen to my class series on Economics and Social Justice in Jewish Law.] I do disagree with Gary Johnson on matters of foreign policy which I find naive. I doubt anyone would agree 100% with any candidate, though I happen to be more aligned with Gary Johnson than any of the other candidates.

Still, my reasons for voting for Gary Johnson are not just ideological, but strategic. It is a near certainty that Barack Obama will carry New York State, in which case the votes of people like myself will have no impact on the results of the election.[4. Were I living in Ohio or Florida I would have a different evaluation of my vote.] The weight of a single vote on the electoral college varies state by state but each vote matters equally towards the popular tabulation.[5. Though due to the sheer number of votes cast, each individual vote is essentially negated in the margin of error] But while the popular vote does not determine the winner of the election, it can still have an impact on national politics.

Currently the US political discourse is defined exclusively by its two dominant political parties: Republican sand Democrats. Other parties are denied a seat at the debating table. As a practical matter this partisan exclusion is necessary to ensure non-fanatical parties or those controlled by crackpots. The sheer size of Republican and Democratic parties indicates that their positions, policies, and ideologies are considered legitimate by a significant subset of the American population. While both parties have their extremists, ideally their positions would be tempered by more moderate voices. From what I understand the threshold for this popular legitimacy is 5% of the popular vote.

Even if one does not agree completely with the Libertarian agenda, I believe it is important for them to to gain legitimacy in this country. A casual observer of US politics can easily see how adversarial our discourse has become. I believe that this is in part due to the binary nature of the two-party system; you’re either with one or against the other. To put it another way, many vote not in favor of one candidate but in opposition of another. In this system neither side needs to uphold its own views, but rather do so just a little be better than the other. Candidates do not need to convince voters, but only to scare them. A legitimate third party could very well force the political discourse back towards positions rather than personalities and perhaps compel a more productive rhetoric.

If course, this could be accomplished with the ascendancy of any of the so-called (and misnamed) “third-parties,” in which case why support Libertarianism? Aside from the practical matter that it already enjoys a great deal of popularity, in many ways it represents a moderation and synthesis of ideas currently popular in both the Democratic and Republican parties (though perhaps with more consistency). Ron Paul is perhaps the most prominent Libertarian, though he has demonstrated that he is not quite the one to lead this cultural revolution. In case you have not heard him directly, here is Gary Johnson’s appearance on The Daily Show.

In the words of our President, it’s time for a change.

A real change.

Ep. 60 Current Jewish Questions 7 – Contraception

In response to the recent controversy over the Affordable Healthcare Act and religious freedom, Rabbi Yuter explores the primary sources for the Jewish discussions on contraception.

Current Jewish Questions 7 – Contraception Sources (PDF)

Current Jewish Questions 7 – Contraception