Friday, November 22, 2013

S1 E8 of Good Shabbos Nebraska - Like Father Like Clown

This week is a special episode of Good Shabbos Nebraska - America's favorite Shabbos Morning Talk Show!

We have two very special guests.

Our regularly scheduled guest is my cousin, comedian Sheba Mason, daughter of the legendary Jewish comedian Jackie Mason.

My late grandfather, Rabbi Joseph Maza zt"l, was the older brother of Jackie Mason.  (The original last name, Maza, is a Hebrew acronym for Mi-Zera Aharon Hakohen, meaning of the descendants of the Kohen Aharon.)

Sheba and I first met each other in Florida, where she grew up, over 20 years ago, but lost touch and had not seen each other until we connected on facebook a few years ago.  We met in New York and since then the rest of my family has also become reacquainted with Sheba.  My sister in New York has had her for Shabbos a few times and she was at the recent bris of my nephew.

Sheba is a comedian in New York and also produces and acts in musicals and comedy shows, including the musical dramedy 702 Punchlines and Pregnant - a show based on her mother's relationship with Sheba's father.  

On Good Shabbos Nebraska we are going to look into the parshah which talks about Yosef and his unfortunate and complicated relationship with his family.  Besides the strained relationship with his brothers, the sages in the Talmud consider why Yosef did not reach out to his father once he became prominent in Egypt.

Jackie Mason won an Emmy for his voice over in the season 6 Simpsons Episode, Like Father Like Clown.  In the episode he portrayed Rabbi Hyman Krustofsky, father of Bart's hero, Krusty the Klown. Although it is widely thought that the episode was a parody of the famous movie The Jazz Singer, there are some who suspect that the show was somehow a hint to Jackie Mason's own personal story and his relationship with his father.  The themes expressed in that episode, as well as in 702 Punchlines and Pregnant, both relate to this week's parshah. I am really looking forward to learning with Sheba tomorrow.

Our second guest is a surprise guest!  Someone who just happened to be in Omaha for Shabbos and graciously agreed to appear with Sheba on the show.

I can't divulge who it is just yet, but I promise to give a full blog report after Shabbos.  All I can say is that he is very famous, and those who come to shul will be very happy that they did!

So check it out, this and every Shabbos, 10 am ONLY at Beth Israel Synagogue - Where every Shabbos is a Shabbaton!

Friday, November 15, 2013

Panel Discussion with Avital Chizhik and Fania Oz Salzberger

This Shabbos, journalist Avital Chizhik will be our guest on Good Shabbos Nebraska - America's favorite Shabbos morning talk show.  Avital is known for many things, including a letter defending Orthodox Judaism against comments made by iconic Israeli author Amos Oz. 

Yesterday I was promoting Avital's visit on twitter, when I got an interesting reply to one of my tweets. 
"Hasn't this misquotation gone a bit too far?"
The tweet was from @faniaoz - Fania Oz Salzberger.  She is the daughter of Amos Oz, the coauthor of his latest book, and a famous Israeli historian, writer, and thinker in her own right. 

Fania first encountered Avital Chizhik a few years ago when Avital was working on her senior thesis at Yeshiva University.  The subject of her thesis was the memoir of her favorite Israeli author, Amos Oz.  She emailed both Oz himself and Fania when doing her research with a few questions.  Oz and Fania both responded generously, but they never met in person. 

A few months ago they had another encounter.  Amos Oz and Fania had just completed their joint project, Jews and Words.  In an interview on Israeli TV Amos Oz referred to Orthodox Judaism as a "fossil."  Avital wrote an amazing piece responding to this challenge (posted here). 

This time it was Fania who reached out to Avital.  They had some interesting email exchanges, and each one left the conversation with respect for the other, and following each other on twitter.

When I included @avitalrachel in my tweets yesterday, @fania noticed and decided to join into yet another conversation with Avital.

I responded to her tweet,
"not sure what you mean, but we would love to have you on the show to explain.  Ever been to Omaha? @goodshabbosneb"
 To which she responded,
"would love to come to Omaha and discuss this on stage with Avital, whom I deeply respect."
I checked her earlier twitter feed and lo and behold - it turns out that today, she is in St. Louis giving a lecture at the JCC!  St. Louis is a short 45 minute flight from Omaha!  She could come out Friday and be here on Good Shabbos Nebraska for Shabbos!

So I reached out to her in private message.  I gave her my phone number and told her to call me so that we could make it happen.

In the meantime she tweeted the following,
"My co-author and I have no "offensive remarks" vs. Jewish Orthodoxy, let alone women like Avital." 
She read my blog!!!!!  Fania Oz Salzberger is officially a reader of Amerabbica! 
But it also means that I had published something that was possibly inaccurate and seemingly offensive to someone.  That is never my intent so immediately I wrote,
"I am publicly retracting that tweet and personally apologizing if I was offensive in any way."
I then changed the word on my blog post from "offensive" to "provocative."
She replied,
"Gratefully acknowledged, dear Rabbi Jon.  Never been to Omaha (but my co-author has find memories."
A minute after, my phone rang.  It was her!
She was in St Louis, but unfortunately she was going to be in New York for Shabbat by her aunt and then back to Israel.
We had a very pleasant conversation.  She said that she definitely would love to come to Omaha and be a guest on Good Shabbos Nebraska next time.  Her father was a scholar in residence in 2003 at Temple Israel in Omaha and he has fond memories. 

I told her that we had interacted before.  About a year ago she and her father were on a live broadcast of the 92nd street Y promoting their new book.  We were watching it in the JCC in Omaha.  When it came time for questions, my wife Miriam submitted a question by text, and that question was the subject of about 20 minutes of discussion between her and her father.  They kept referring to the questioner as "Omaha." 

She said that she remembered well.  She remembered thanking Miriam for the question and told me to thank her again.

So after we established that she could not be our guest this Shabbos, I asked her when she would be in the states next.  She told me she would be here again in March.  So I suggested that we host in New York a panel discussion with her and Avital Chizhik.  She told me that she would definitely want to do that.  She said that she was recently at the GA in Israel and she sat on a panel with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.  While she enjoys hearing him speak very much, he tends to be very politically correct and it is hard to have a real argument with him, but she would enjoy talking more to Avital because she thinks the two of them could have some honest and open dialogue that everyone present would benefit from.

So stayed tuned for March 2014 - Avital Chizhik and Frania Oz Salzberger in NYC.

And don't miss Season 1 episode 7 of Good Shabbos Nebraska - Shabbos 10am ONLY at Beth Israel Synagogue - Where every Shabbos is a shabbaton!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Amos Oz - who are you calling a fossil?

This Shabbos Good Shabbos Nebraska will host journalist Avital Chizhik. The following is an excerpt from her iconic defense of Orthodox Judaism against the provocative comments of Amos Oz. 

Sometimes it takes only one word to strike you so deeply that you find yourself returning to it again and again. Recently, I’ve been haunted by a singular word choice, happened upon in an interview with Amos Oz, a long-time literary role model of mine.
In light of the recent publication of his "Jews and Words," a book he co-wrote with his daughter Fania Oz-Salzberger, Oz comments on Jewish tradition: “When those people [the ultra-Orthodox] say ‘the real Jewish tradition,’ they have in mind not the living and kicking Jewish legacy, but a fossil.”
A fossil. Certainly, as the authors wryly preempt in the epilogue, "Jews and Words" may irk the Orthodox reader and the believer, with its celebration of Jewish literature as it is understood by “atheists of the Book.” But it’s not the book’s irreverence that I found problematic. It’s the claim of secular ownership over debate, the assumption that traditional, "fossilized" observance must preclude one’s ability to ask radical questions.
I've always found it amusing that the secular world sees Orthodox Jews as those who live with utter conviction. Perhaps it’s a simple deduction to make, watching us sway over our books and close our eyes in prayer. But I’ll tell you a secret belief of mine, from the Inside:
It’s impossible to live this lifestyle of ours both quietly and consciously.
Because as much as our texts are steeped in debates and questions, so are our daily lives and most minute thoughts. We breathe our literacy. Indeed, as Oz and Oz-Salzberger so poignantly describe, we are obsessed with this, but in no way have we “forgotten the spirit of questioning that the Talmud once knew.”
I invite you to enter our yeshivas and our Sabbath tables, our forums and journals and Facebook feeds too, where we debate this very stuff of fossils; try to hear yourself think over the din of hundreds of Orthodox Jews arguing passionately. Paleontologists have yet to find a fossil, that remnant of a distant era, with as loud a heartbeat as this one.
It’s a lifestyle devoted to major moral questions – all the time. To be a consciously religious Jew requires a certain measure of intellect, an ability to constantly think, to never tire of asking and seeking meaning.
Debates arise beyond our study halls, but in the rituals that govern our daily lives. I encounter questions every day only because of these rituals – the very ones that I am told by the secular world are hopelessly backwards, a "convenient abstraction."
“What is this commandment to you?” they ask us, smirking. And sometimes I stay quiet because I myself am still deciding what these commandments mean to me, and at other times I stay quiet because I’m not sure I’ll be able to fully convey just how deeply, achingly, important I find these traditions.
The questions probably begin, like most things, with prayer – the punctuation mark of the Orthodox Jew’s day. Regardless of circumstance, we put everything aside and turn eastward several times a day to recite the same ancient words, every time.
But why pray, if it’s all by rote? Why force myself to say these words if I don’t feel in this moment that I’m literally convening with the Divine? I often set the prayer book down and recite the words from memory, pretending the words aren’t dictated but rather come from inside – and even if I do feel the words deeply, when a sudden phrase seems to articulate a most wordless thought, how will I know if there’s an answer? Sometimes I know He is listening, and other times a wall is a wall is a wall, and no matter how many prayers I try to place into it, it remains still – what then?
And every morning, I can’t help but wonder about this uniform of the Orthodox woman that I continue to choose: knee-length skirt, long sleeves, high neck. It’s not just about modesty – there’s also something of a statement in this dress code, because when I step out onto Madison Avenue in mid-July and realize I’m the only obvious Jew, I feel different, incurably so. I’m inevitably reminded of my Otherness, and part of me cringes as other women give my sleeves quizzical looks –- “Honey, did you check the forecast today?” – and I’m reminded not only of some values I strive to stand by, but also of this heightened sense of alienness. Even if no one else notices, I still feel bound to this name and identity; if I’d just change my clothing, perhaps I’d be free of this, perhaps I’d blend in with the rest of the enlightened world and breathe freely and never think twice about the way I’m perceived.
Thus a simple walk in Manhattan provokes a barrage of questions: Why be an Other, and why not be "like all the other nations?" Why suffer this endless Diaspora syndrome, the way my parents and grandparents did in the streets of Kiev? Dear God, now this uniform makes me an obvious Orthodox Jew – now I ought to be extra careful and smile and be polite and offer my seat to others on the subway, to set a good example as a Daughter of Israel lest someone starts a pogrom. Constant, constant consciousness – perhaps bordering on neurosis, too.
More questions arise as we avert our eyes from the forbidden and push away temptations. At a dinner party, a cafe, a gallery opening, a young well-dressed foreigner walks over to chat. The music is getting louder, and he’s leaning in closer and from the look in his eye, I know that I have approximately six minutes to slip away before he tries to put his hand on my waist and invites me for a drink. For a fleeting moment I consider it, then compose myself and walk away before I get caught up in the heat of the music, but as I walk away, I wonder: A 21-year-old girl living in New York City, forbidden from so much as a hand on her waist? Medieval, puritanical! Who am I, to cite my teachers and insist that touch is powerful, if I know nothing of it?
And even as the sun sets on Friday, when we turn off our phones and laptops and suddenly there is peace in the house, every small gesture transforms into a Sabbath gesture, and then into a potential debate: the halakha determines the way we greet each other, the way we sort silverware, the way we pour tea. When my father raises his glass to say kiddush over the wine, week after week, he invokes God’s creation of the world and the redemption from Egypt. But what is this Sabbath, what can I learn from the story of Creation, and how is this related to Egypt – where does one find freedom, in this day of restrictions? In the afternoon, I read Torah passages that spark more difficult questions: A commandment to wipe out Amalek? Why, genocide! A woman's oath is subject to be overridden by her father’s or husband’s wish? Misogyny! Endless descriptions of animal sacrifices? Irrelevant! A frantic search through rabbinic commentaries offers thousand of years of others before me, confronting the same questions and positing their own answers – what is morality?
Who are we to decide what is moral, in the face of Ultimate Truth? And how can I understand these concepts without altering the original into something entirely different, without taking the easy way out and brushing off these texts as irrelevant?
And then there are questions that arise because of the communities we’ve constructed for ourselves. Try living in a society of rigid norms without quietly questioning, try learning the language of each community without a healthy dose of humor. Orthodoxy is diverse, but we know enough about one another to know which conversations are allowed at which table. In one place I can reference a Talmudic passage without being considered a radical feminist, in another place I can discuss emotion without being deemed simple. Here, I can say "Gut Shabbes" to other religious Jews and here I shouldn’t, here I can wear red and here I can wear all black – heaven forbid that I mix the two up. And why all these rules, is there a value to these social standards that we silently laugh at? Must I define myself by my community, and what of the children I want to raise, what schools shall I send them to? What of our leadership, those who are too careful to call the emperor’s new clothes for what they are, and what of those schoolteachers who are so pious about the Law and not about human interactions – how does one rise above hypocrisy, preserving one’s ideals without being discouraged?
Here, what small gesture doesn't emerge as a question? Perhaps if I were to lead another life, my mind would be relatively quieter: no questions to constantly grapple with, no angels to wrestle, no desperate search for meaning in tradition either. Because here, every latte requires a pause and a blessing, every first morning glimpse a nod of thanks, every mezuzah a kiss of acknowledgement: constant, constant consciousness is demanded of us. Faith is far from "convenient;" it’s all-encompassing, a sincere choice that needs reaffirming daily. Our turbulent pursuit of meaning is in no way restricted to the sanctuaries and libraries of scholars, but it exists at our tables, in our kitchens, our offices and bedrooms and gardens. I often feel that, like the symbols and motions of the Passover Seder table, the rituals of Orthodox Judaism are almost predisposed to provoking questions and seeking answers: Is it not pulsating with vibrancy? Is this really the life of a fossil, a ‘living museum’ of family heirlooms relegated to the attic?
Calling another tradition a "fossil" has unpleasant implications. It’s faintly reminiscent of the language Sir Arthur Toynbee used in his 1934 writings on the Jews, and it renders the other as barely relevant, silent, extinct.
Last week, MK Ruth Calderon spoke elegantly about the Torah not being the property of any stream. Indeed, let the same be said about questions. Do not insist on monopolizing the right to question – secular brethren, as much as the Orthodox should not write you out of the story, I humbly ask that you do not write the Orthodox out of this story either. Do not deny our part in this great national conversation by dismissing our ability to think critically as well.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Haaretz on Good Shabbos Nebraska

This week Good Shabbos Nebraska - America's favorite Shabbos morning talk show - will feature special guest Avital Chizhik, a columnist for Haaretz, Israel's most widely read daily newspaper. 

Avital, 22, gained recognition as a serious journalist for a story on the intriguing and mysterious case of the library of Rabbi Yitzchak Shneerson, the 6th Lubvaitcher Rebbe.  The library was seized almost 100 years ago by the Bolsheviks and eventually landed in the archives of Moscow’s national Lenin Library.  Since then, the some 15,000 volumes have been the subject of a bitter property dispute that has been a source of tension between the U.S. and Russian governments.  Because of the dispute, for the last two years Russians have refused to loan any artwork to American museums, fearing that once the pieces enter the U.S they will be seized and used as leverage to ransom the Shneerson Library.
Avital is an Orthodox Jewish woman, the daughter of Russian immigrants, and she speaks fluent Russian.  Her background and language skills uniquely positioned her to do research on the case both here and in Russia.  Her piece was published by Tablet Magazine in September of 2013 and has subsequently appeared in many other publications.

For Haaretz, Avital writes pieces of human interest that give her readers a glimpse into the lives of interesting famous, and sometimes not so famous, Jewish personalities, as well as a perspective from foreign and exotic communities and cultures.  Among those exotic cultures that Avital writes about is the world of the young Orthodox Jewish woman.  It is widely believed that there is a divide in Israel between secular and religious Israelis, and that the two sides have little exposure to one another.  Avital has established herself as an articulate, sophisticated, and at times sassy voice for Orthodox Jewish women in a newspaper that caters to a mostly secular audience. 

She gained international attention with a piece that she wrote earlier this year responding to a comment by Israeli author and cultural icon Amos Oz.  When talking in an interview about his latest work he referred to Orthodox Jewish tradition as a “fossil,” and suggested that those who identify as Orthodox are incapable of intellectual curiosity or rational thinking.  Oz was, and remains, Avital’s greatest literary influence and the subject of her undergraduate thesis paper.  Never the less, Avital responded to Oz in a dignified and respectful piece that beautifully articulates the vibrancy of contemporary Orthodox Jewish thought. 

Avital is thrilled to be a guest on Good Shabbos Nebraska and hopes to write an article for Haaretz about our talk show Shabbos format and our community. 

For those who don’t know, Good Shabbos Nebraska is our weekly Shabbos morning talk show that features Torah, Jewish news, and exciting guests.  The show is not broadcast in any way and the only way to experience it is by coming to shul at 10am every Shabbos at Beth Israel synagogue – where every Shabbos is a Shabbaton!

Friday, November 8, 2013

Chess Grandmaster Boris Gulko is coming to Omaha!

I am about to pick up Chess Grand Master and Jewish Hero Boris Gulko from the airport. 

One of the great privileges of being the Rabbi of a city like Omaha is that over the last 10 years I have had the privilege of meeting and spending time with some truly amazing people, including Natan Sharansky, Michael Oren, and of course Warren Buffett.  

Yet I cannot ever remember being as excited to meet someone as I am right now!  Boris Gulko is truly a great Jewish hero and it is such a great honor to host him this Shabbos on Good Shabbos Nebraska!  The feeling right now is indescribable.  Everyone MUST come to meet this great man this Shabbos at 10am at Beth Israel!

The following is another excerpt from the book Searching for Bobby Fischer: The World of Chess, Observed by the Father of a Child Prodigy.

“In 1978 Anna and I applied for emigration to Israel. I wanted to live without chess management, but chess management
 didn’t want to live without me.” Gulko laughed quietly. “Until then we both were paid for being chess players, but after we applied for emigration all income stopped. They didn’t invite me to any tournaments, even those in this country. For two years I was not allowed to play a single game. For two years I waited. It was destroying me. Anna was in the same situation. We went on a hunger strike in 1980, and after that I was allowed to play in the Moscow Open. I suppose they didn’t consider me a threat to win, because it was a very strong tournament and I was out of practice.”
To the dismay of the authorities, Gulko did win, and during the awards ceremony at the Central Chess Club, he asked to speak. A hush fell over the gathering as he addressed the Soviet Chess Federation and asked that Victor Korchnoi’s wife and son be allowed to leave the Soviet Union to join him in exile. After the speech players and guests paused to shake Gulko’s hand.
Volodja Pimonov witnessed Gulko’s courageous speech at the Central Chess Club. “Afterwards, I drove the judge of the tournament home,” he said. “The man was trembling, because authorities were already saying that it was his fault since he was the judge. After such a debacle they must find a scapegoat.”
In 1982 the Gulkos tried to publicize their situation by demonstrating outside the interzonal tournament. “Anna and I waved posters saying, ‘Let us go to Israel.’ We were arrested and thrown in jail for the night. A few days later I returned to the tournament, which had been moved to the Sport Hotel for increased security. This time I did not intend to demonstrate; I simply wanted to watch the chess. There was a large crowd outside the hall hoping for tickets. A large man with the face of a dog came over and kicked me and smashed me in the face. Then a policeman appeared, the dog man said that I had beaten him, and I was arrested again. The crowd got to see a more interesting show than inside the hall—a former champion of the Soviet Union being kicked on the street.
“A month later we went on another hunger strike. After twenty-two days the doctors told Anna that she must eat or she would die. I had nothing but water for forty-two days. We did it to gain the attention of chess players around the world. But they couldn’t help us.
“My savings are gone now. For a while we received parcels of clothes from Jewish organizations in the West, but they no longer come. I think they are impounded by customs. The clothes were useful because I could sell them in a secondhand shop for money to buy food. Our financial situation is critical, but the biggest pain is not being able to play. When we applied for emigration we were among the strongest players in the world. These years have been a creative death. My life now is mostly waiting. I’ve lost many years. I don’t know how many more I have left.”
Later Boris played a game against Josh, and then demonstrated several of his recent unpublished games. The calmness of his voice gave way to passionate chess talk and even peals of laughter. “You have to be a grandmaster to understand,” said Boris, moving the pieces; at this moment all of us could feel the sublime importance of chess in this deprived little home. “I conceive of chess as an art form,” he said, showing us an original combination with two knights while Anna watched him as if he were reciting poetry. “I will only play in a way that interests me,” Boris said. “For me chess is finding ideas, beautiful, paradoxical ideas.”
Ten minutes after we waved good-bye to Gulko in the parking lot, we were stopped by the police. Volodja whispered that we must not speak English. He was questioned at length about a supposed illegal turn before we were allowed to go on. Volodja said he was certain they knew we had been at the Gulkos’. “You won’t be allowed to leave the country with your tapes and film,” he warned. “If they are confiscated, it will be very bad for me. "

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

World's Greatest Chess Master to Appear on Good Shabbos Nebraska

This Shabbos will be the most historic and memorable episode ever of Good Shabbos Nebraska!  We have the honor to host Boris Gulko.

Along with Natan Sharansky, Boris Gulko is among the most famous of all Russian refusniks.  He was the chess champion of the Soviet Union in 1977, but because he was a Jew he suffered persecution, incarceration, and even physical abuse by the KGB.

Besides being one of the greatest chess players of all time, he is a piece of modern Jewish history, as well as one of my own personal heroes.  It is with great honor that we welcome him to Beth Israel as a guest on Good Shabbos Nebraska.

On Sunday he will play a simultaneous game against the 20 best players in the state of Nebraska at Beth Israel.

On Shabbos at 10 am Grandmaster Gulko will tell us about his experiences and also why he thinks that Jews have proven historically to be so adept at chess.

Even if you are not a chess enthusiast, you will not want to miss this episode of Good Shabbos Nebraska.

For the next week I will be publishing on my blog some excerpts about Grandmaster Gulko from Fred Waitzkin's  Searching for Bobby Fischer: The World of Chess, Observed by the Father of a Child Prodigy (pages 98-107)
More than ever I wanted to meet Boris Gulko. Still, I was apprehensive when I received a call on our room phone in the hotel saying that a meeting with “our friend” had been arranged. What if the meeting was a setup? If we ended up in jail, what would happen to Josh? 

In a few minutes Volodja’s small car pulled up, and he gestured for us to crowd into the back seat. Next to him in the front sat Gulko. 

Volodja nervously checked the rearview mirror. “Boris has just won the semifinals of the Soviet championship,” he said. I was surprised, because there had been no report of his participation in newspapers or chess magazines, and most players and chess journalists I had asked said that they didn’t know what had become of Gulko. “Oh, I am allowed to play a few games a year,” he said, “but they are never reported. If I win a tournament they only write who came in second or third.” Gulko said that he had played Kasparov twice during the past three years and won both games. Almost no one beats Kasparov, and such news would have been on television and on the front page of Pravda were Gulko not a refusenik, one of the living dead.
Boris Gulko is a distinguished-looking white-haired man of medium height with a small pursed mouth and a gentle face. He appeared to be fifty-five or sixty. His speech was serene, almost in the manner of an Eastern mystic, except for a sharp laugh that was filled with irony. At times there was an eerie disparity between his subject and his tone of voice. For example, he would describe a period of intense physical and emotional trauma—a hunger strike or a brutal beating—almost in passing, as if he were beyond feeling pain. I was shocked when Gulko told me that he was thirty-seven. He smiled. “If you don’t eat for forty-two days you too will look sixty,” he said.
I asked if he’d been following the match.
“I would love to go, but Krogius won’t sell me a ticket,” he said, referring to the head of Soviet chess. “Perhaps I would be an embarrassment. Two years ago I got in touch with Karpov about my problems, but he refused to help.”
Even during the early stages of the Karpov-Kasparov match there had been discussion among Russian intellectuals, grandmasters and journalists about whether the event was a legitimate contest. In several of the early games we had attended, Kasparov had advantages and had failed to follow up on them. Later in the match, he aroused the suspicion of grandmasters and chess journalists around the world by offering draws in games in which he seemed to have winning chances. Miguel Najdorf said that Kasparov’s play was inexplicable and a disgrace. “I wouldn’t offer draws in such positions, and I’m seventy-five years old,” he said. In the Times of London, chess columnist Harry Golombek wrote: “Perhaps Kasparov has been warned not to play well and has been given to understand that the consequences for him and his family would be disastrous if he did.”
I asked Gulko if he was surprised by Kasparov’s poor play and whether he thought it was possible that the challenger had been ordered to lose the match because the Central Committee didn’t want a Jew to be world champion (Kasparov's father was Jewish - RJG). “It is impossible to know this for a fact,” Gulko answered. “Perhaps Kasparov is just playing poorly. He is an emotional young man. But in Russia chess is political and it is difficult to refuse if you are asked to throw a game. If they don’t want a chess player to play, like me or Bronstein, for example, they’ll stop you for years.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Shmuley Boteach's Next Book - Kosher Polygamy?

Season 1 episode 5 of Good Shabbos Nebraska - America's favorite Shabbos morning talk show - was absolutely incredible!

At the season premier we had Shmuley Boteach on the show and he introduced us to Kosher Sex.  This past week we had Rabbi Dr. Moshe Goldfeder who introduced us to Polygamy.  Shmuley is going to be debating against polygamy this coming Shabbos in Mexico and he really needs to speak to Rabbi Goldfeder before he does.

Rabbi Dr. Moshe Goldfeder is professor of law at Emory university and I believe he will likely be recognized within the next few years as one of the great American Jewish thinkers.

At only 28 years old, Rabbi Dr. Goldfeder has his rabbinic ordination, his law degree, and a doctorate in Law and religion.  He is a prolific writer and the topics that he chooses to write on are not timely - they are way ahead of our time!  He is thinking about, researching, and writing about issues that have yet to come up in the mainstream consciousness but will undoubtedly be the hot button issues of tomorrow!

When only a law student, Rabbi Goldfeder wrote a paper on the method by which a state like Israel could draft a constitution without compromising its Jewish character.  His paper is widely sited for its application to other countries around the world, and Rabbi Goldfeder has been asked to present it at international conferences around the world.


His dissertation, which will soon be a book, was on plural marriage.  He presented a lecture on plural marriage at shul on Shabbos.  Recently, Canadian courts were dealing with the issue of plural marriage and Rabbi Goldfeder was called upon by the mainstream media to comment as he is already a recognized authority in the field.  

Plural marriage is already extant in America, in cities and states that people least expect.  When speaking about plural marriage entering the mainstream, he reminded us that the television show Will and Grace did more for the acceptance of gay marriage then any court case.  Today there are no less than five televisions shows that feature polygamy.  This seems to be a credible indication that there is a move for societal acceptance.  

The debate over whether gay marriage should be societally accepted is pretty much over.  Even those who are opposed to Gay marriage must admit that the concept is no longer a fringe idea, it has become accepted by the mainstream and, on the contrary, it has become increasingly hard to argue against gay marriage in public discourse.  It is likely that the next debate over the definition of marriage will be about whether America should accept plural marriage.

In this regard, Rabbi Goldfeder is on the cutting edge, and he has already researched, thought about, and written extensively about this topic that is still off of most people's radars.

He points out that Gay marriage was easy legally but difficult religiously.  Legally all that needed to be done was to redefine marriage by substituting the world man for woman.  Ultimately it is still a union between two people.  Religiously Gay marriage causes a problem.

Polygamy is the opposite.  It does not pose a serious religious problem as Judaism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Mormonism, most forms of Christianity, and many other religions allow for it.  Legally, however, plural marriage is a nightmare as it changes the nature of marriage from a union between two people to a union between three (or more) people.  This is a fundamental shift that would be difficult for our current legal system to digest.  

As for Judaism's position on polygamy, Rabbi Goldfeder says that he believes Judaism stands against allowing polygamy.  Not for religious reasons per se, but rather because we experimented with it and it does not seem to work.  Of the 40+ polygamous unions mentioned in the Torah by name, most of them end in tragedy.  There is also extensive evidence in the form of legal documents and Rabbinic responsa of tragic cases that involved more than one wife.  

According to Rabbi Goldfeder, polygamy was already taboo in Jewish circles at least 1000 years prior to the famous decree known as the takanat Rabbeinu Gershom that most people erroneously think was the end of Jewish polygamy.  In reality, Jews had abandoned plural marriage long before but kept it legal on the books.  They kept it legal because early Christians claimed that the Bible forbid plural marriage and Jews felt the need to distinguish themselves from early Christians, specifically exegetically, when Christianity was still susceptible to being confused as a sect of Judaism.  By the 11th century this was no longer a concern so for this and other reasons Jews felt that they could officially outlaw plural marriage - which had already been abandoned centuries earlier.

Rabbi Goldfeder told us about contemporary cases of polygamy and how there seems to be a correlation with polygamous societies and all sorts of scary atrocities like abuse, murder, and slaver.  He does not claim that polygamy is necessarily the cause, but one cannot ignore the strong correlation.


In addition to polygamy, Rabbi Goldfeder also spoke about his next book, Almost Human, about Robots in society.  Today technology is moving so fast that within the next 50 years they say we will see the development of Robots that are so lifelike in appearance and in intelligence that they will be practically indistinguishable form human beings. While this seems like science fiction, think about how many things currently exist that were considered science fiction only 20 years ago.  If and when these robots are built, they will present all sorts of ethical conundrums.  

Rabbi Goldfeder contends that the Jewish sages of antiquity were already thinking of such issues.  The Jewish sages do not claim to be scientists.  They were informed men of their day and spoke with scientists and explorers from among the other nations.  If there were reports of mythical creatures in far away lands, the sages were less interested in whether or not they existed and more interested in how we should react to these creatures if they did exist.  What would the moral implications of such creatures be?  

As it turns out, they discussed different types of creatures that conceptually would resemble the Robots of the future.  Particularly, Rabbi Goldfeder points to the mythical Golem of Jewish lore.  A Golem is a man made creature made of clay that is animated by a series of letters inserted into its head.  A robot is a man made creature made of metal that is animated by a series of numbers inserted into its head.  

The sages dealt with such creatures and Rabbi Goldfeder presented some fascinating sources.  In the 1950s the British mathematician Alan Turing developed what is today known as the Turing test to ascertain whether or not a machine can demonstrate human thinking.  Unbelievably, the sages had a very similar test and discussed how we should treat creatures that successfully passed the test.  

I don't want to give any more away.  If you want to learn more wait for Rabbi Goldfeder's book Almost Human.

It was an amazing episode of Good Shabbos Nebraska and Rabbi Goldfeder will definitely be a returning guest in the future!!!

This coming Shabbos will be the most memorable episode of Good Shabbos Nebraska in history when we host BORIS GULKO!!!  Stay tuned for more on that.

Hope to see all of you next week on Good Shabbos Nebraska, every week at 10 am ONLY at Beth Israel Synagogue - where every Shabbos is a Shabbaton.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Shmuley - Get your facts straight!

This week on Good Shabbos Nebraska - America's favorite Shabbos morning talk show - we are having polygamy Shabbos.  No, we are not encouraging polygamy.  We have with us special guest Rabbi Dr. Moshe Goldfeder - one of America's foremost experts on ancient and contemporary polygamy - and he is going to talk to us about polygamy in the Torah and in contemporary society.  

Shmuley Boteach is doing polygamy Shabbos next week in Mexico.  He was invited to the City of Ideas conference in Mexico to debate the case for monogamy against some strong pro polygamist.

City of Ideas features some of the brightest, most eloquent and articulate speakers in the world.  It is no surprise that Shmuley is among them and I am glad that he is going to be there to represent Torah values.

Shmuley recently posted on facebook some of his arguments against polygamy.  I was reading them with Dr. Goldfeder and he says that Shmuley must sharpen his arguments as the arguments he presented have some grey areas.

I want to be clear that this is not in any way a criticism of Shmuley, a rabbi that I greatly admire.  The fact is that he was the Rabbi that was asked to promote and defend Torah values in Mexico at a conference that will have international attention and is attracting some of the most highly regarded public intellectuals of our day.  I am rooting for Shmuley 100% and I want him to be as prepared as possible before he enters the arena and defend Torah values against those who oppose them.

Shmuley writes,
humans are also possessed of a soul which seeks precisely the opposite, namely an intimate sexual relationship based on primacy and exclusivity.
Dr. Goldfeder says that a solely religious argument against polygamy is hard to support.   Many of the major world religions even those in the Western tradition have had, supported, condoned, and at least acknowledged and allowed for the practice of plural marriage, usually polygamy.  The Bible records at least 40 men by name with multiple wives.  Confucianism, Islam, Hinduism, and Mormonism also support plural marriage. While Catholicism clearly bans it, other forms of Christianity are somewhat less opposed.

Shmuley goes on,
Indeed, against all the scientific research, there is the clear fact that even in an age where marriage is being treated as an outmoded institution which has passed its sell-by date, monogamy continues to be the chosen norm for the vast majority of people in cultures throughout the world, even if it is serial monogamy outside the framework of marriage.
Dr. Goldfeder says that as of 2012 it was estimated that over 3 billion people in the world believe in plural marriage and over 2 billion people actually live in plural marriage settings.  Studies report that plural marriage is legal in over 150 countries.  In places like South Africa, Egypt, Eritrea, Morocco, Malaysia, Iran, and Libya it is legal, and other places like Israel Chechnya and Burma it is illegal but the laws are not regularly enforced. It is present even in countries we tend to think of as being against plural marriage. An estimated 100,000 people in the US practice plural marriage secretly with another 500,000 living in long term committed polyamorous relationships.  In monogamous western Europe there are at least 100,000 polygamous marriages.

According to the ethnographic data in the 1998 atlas of world cultures, 1041 out of the 1231 societies in the world feature plural marriage in one form or another.

Of 1154 societies described int he human relations files 93% recognize some degree of socially sanctioned polygamy and in 70% of all cases polygamy is the preferred choice.

Anthropologists believe that polygamy has been the norm throughout human history.

So Shmuley actually has his work cut out for him.  The case for monogamy is harder than it seems, especially when it has to be made against people who will be armed with statistics and studies that prove that it is more the norm than an anomaly.

I wish Shmuley the best of luck in this high profile debate.  Rabbi Goldfeder said that he is happy to assist Shmuley in his prep work over the week.  Hashem should bless Shmuley with success and I hope that his polygamy Shabbos goes as well as ours on Good Shabbos Nebraska, every Shabbos at 10 am ONLY at Beth Israel!