Defending Bat-El's Right to Enter the Contest

A number of commenters have already disagreed with my take on the Bible Contest controversy, so I decided to respond in a separate post.

First off, I'd feel the same way if it was a state-sponsored Gemara contest. This is a government-funded event. It cannot and should not distinguish between citizens (and this girl IS a citizen) on the basis of religion, race, gender, etc. It would be different if it were a matter of institutional recognition, not the eligibility of an INDIVIDUAL citizen (who happens to be Christian) to enter a state-run contest.

I do not think that there is even a 'hava amina' that this grants legitimacy to a certain group, any more than if a Messianic Jew were a contestant on 'Survivor' or 'A Star is Born' (Israel's 'American Idol' - funny double entendre, though). The fact that this is a state-funded event makes the organizers' responsibility to allow entry to any qualified individual greater, not lesser.

To make myself perfectly clear: there is a very big difference between facilitating the establishment of a church and extending equal rights to its members.

It is possible to argue that:
a) this event is intended for Jews specifically;
b) this girl, though legally Jewish, cuts herself off from the Jewish community by professing Christianity; and
c) by allowing her to enter the competition as a Jew, one appears to be including her faith community in the Jewish community.

My main issue is with a). I am against the idea that citizens of Israel would be discriminated against, in a state-sponsored, national event, on the basis of religion. The Jewish character of the state can pertain to national symbols and culture - the sponsorship of an International Bible Quiz (and not a Koran or New Testament Quiz, and not even a spelling bee) is an excellent manifestation of just that culture. The Jewish character of the state must never be invoked to deny rights and priveleges to its citizens.

In this case, since a) might actually be upheld by the letter of the law, which establishes the event as a competition amongst Jewish youths, I am in favor of upholding the principles I set forth above via recourse to the fact that this girl, technically and legally, is Jewish (as noted in b)). This might violate the spirit of the law which declares that this state-funded competition is for Jews only, but that law itself violates the spirit of Israel as a democratic state with equal rights extended to all citizens (which, in this case, need in no way undermine its Jewish character).

Bible Thumping

Several groups, spearheaded by the Yad L’Achim counter-missionary group, are trying to disqualify an 11th grade girl from the International Bible Quiz (Chidon TaNaCh) because, though Jewish by birth, she belongs to a Messianic congregation (link, link).

I really don’t see the issue. Let a Christian or Moslem or Buddhist or whomever win. Besides, this sets a dangerous precedent; next year they might decide to disqualify Chabadniks.

I guess if I ran a counter-missionary organization I’d want to make a stink about it also. After all, alarmism is a great fundraiser. When you’ve got a hammer, the whole world becomes your nail. Yes, indeed. They will have you believe that millions of impressionable Jewish kids who have nothing better to do with a day off than watch an event with all the drama of a spelling bee (OK, I admit. I cried like a baby at the end of Akeelah) will be amazed at this (probably very nerdy, if experience is a good indicator) girl’s mastery of the Jewish Bible (she’d clean up the New Testament competition) and suddenly develop an interest in Christianity.

For me, the most disturbing element is that the quiz is only open to Jews in the first place. Is that just to get Jewish Agency funding? I don’t get it. Let ‘em all join. I think it’s impressive that this girl knows TaNach so well – I’ve met missionary Messianic Jews (or so they claimed) and they didn’t know much Bible beyond Isaiah 53 and Jeremiah 31:31 (in fact, I once replied to a missionary who asked me – while I was working on building the College Park eruv – whether I was familiar with Jer 31:31 by saying, “Yes. Are you familiar with 31:30 or 31:32?”. Needless to say, he was not). So let her compete. What are we really so afraid of, for chrissake?


AddeRabbi’s Pesach FAQ

[News: An article that I wrote, which originated as a shiur I gave on Shavu’ot 4 years ago, then adapted for this blog (link), was published in the most recent volume of the Journal of Halakha and Contemporary Society. I submitted it almost 2 years ago (back when I was still a rabbi ;)]

Q. Why do we drink 4 cups of wine (i.e., not any other number)?

A. Because there are 4 occasions during the course of the meal which mandate a ‘kos shel bracha’: Kiddush, Sippur Yetziat Mitzrayim, Bentching, and Hallel. Everything else is drash.

Q. According to those who are makpid not to eat a ke-zayit of karpas because the hefsek before the meal would be too long without making a bracha acharona, why does the issue not arise regarding the first cup of wine? What happened to its bracha acharona?

A. I have no good answer, but I do have 2 more good ways to solve the ‘bracha acharona’ issue so you can load up on karpas:

a. Just make a bracha acharona if you want.

b. Keep eating karpas all through magid.

Q. How many parts does the Seder have?

A. Four: The beginning of the meal, sippur yetziat Mitzrayim which interrupts the meal, the rest of the meal (incl. birkat hamazon) and Hallel. Each section is punctuated by a cup of wine at its beginning or end. This is the division articulated in the Mishna. The cute poem that we all love (kadesh urchatz…) was composed in the 13th Century.

Q. Did Hillel really make a sandwich in the times of the Beit ha-Mikdash?

A. No. Otherwise a ‘sandwich’ would be called a ‘hillel’ since he predated the famed Earl by over a millennium. Seriously, though, Hillel had it right. He wrapped (‘korech’) his matza around some marror and some korban Pesach. Clearly, his matza was soft and flexible. The Mishna’s marror was lettuce. Thus, he basically took a lafa and put on some lettuce and roast lamb, wrapped it up, and chowed down. We commemorate this by eating horseradish on a cracker and saying “This is what Hillel did”, on the very night that we ostensibly preserve and transmit our collective memory.

Q. Does Eliyahu Ha-Navi really come to every Seder?

A. I could answer that question in a way that explains the significance of Eliyahu’s invocation at the Pesach Seder and at circumcision ceremonies, but I’ll just go with ‘no’. My negativity and cynicism stems from the commercialization of Pesach in Israel, in which Eliyahu ha-Navi has basically become the Israeli Santa Claus. He goes from Seder to Seder on his white donkey, asking kids what they want for afikoman. Ladies and gentlemen, the Jewish State.

Q. How important is it to say every word of the Hagaddah?

A. There is no mitzvah to recite the Hagaddah. The mitzvah of sippur yetziat Mitzrayim is to narrate our founding story to our children (and ourselves) in a manner appropriate to each of them. The main text used should be the vidui bikkurim in Devarim. Make sure that you tell it over in a narrative format (beginning, middle, end, starting with the bad parts, ending with the redemption), and use the objects on the table (matzah and marror, not the ‘Bag O’ Plagues’) to characterize and punctuate the various parts of the narrative. That’s the mitzvah. The rest is, quite literally, commentary.


Ki Matta le-Hatam: Community Rabbis in Israel and the United States – Part I

[cross posted to The Muqata]

In the wake of the 'buzz' generated by the impending aliyah of Rabbi Shalom Rosner (click on the 'breaking news' WebAd link above for the story, or just go here), his family, and several members of his kehilla Jameel asked me to guest post about the differences between community rabbis in Israel and the United States.

First, though, a word about Rabbi Rosner’s aliyah. I know a number of successful pulpit rabbis who made aliyah at the height of their careers, but without the fanfare. What makes this so special?

The answer has to do with people other than Rabbi Rosner himself. I’m talking, of course, about Shelly Levine, the real estate agent who is selling the Nofei Ha-Shemesh project in Beit Shemesh (I actually bought my own home in Modiin through her). She’s selling the project as an American-style community with an American-style rabbi. Her husband, Charley, is a PR guru. They cooked up this plan to market this project, and then went and found the right rabbi. This does not take anything away from the sacrifices that the Rosner family is making in order to come on aliyah. It does, however, explain the inordinate amount of hype surrounding them.

Back to the issues at hand – the difference between American Orthodox community rabbis and their Israeli counterparts. The Israeli community rabbinate is a difficult cohort to wrap one’s brain around, because there are at least three distinct elements of it. There’s the official urban/ regional Rabbanut, which operates everywhere in the country, and whose rabbis are paid by the municipality/ regional council. There are the synagogue rabbis. Finally, there are rabbis of small towns (kibbutzim, yishuvim, moshavot, etc.), who are paid by the ‘local council’, but, ultimately, the locales are so small that they are essentially community-based. I will compare these four elements using the following graph:


Hired By

Contract Term




X years - Lifetime





Israel – Shul



X Years

Small Yishuv

In between PT and FT


X Years - Lifetime

This is obviously a bit of an oversimplification. There are plenty of part-time shul rabbis in the U.S., especially in shteiblach and the like, and there are plenty of others who need to hustle in order to make a few extra $$ - teaching in schools and what not – because they live in an expensive community or because the community simply cannot afford to pay the rabbi all that much. Nevertheless, the differences are clear, and it is also clear that the yishuv rabbinate is closest to the American rabbinate in terms of job description and expectations.

Readers may wonder why I have chosen to focus primarily on the economics of the rabbinate. A former teacher of mine, Prof. Shaul Stampfer of Hebrew U., opened my eyes to the economic pressures which guide the development of institutions. The economic (as well as political and social) circumstances in the U.S. and Israel dictate the make-up and function of their respective community rabbinates, as I hope to describe in Part II.


My Dilemma - Take 2

I actually called 'The Jewish Ethicist' when my issue came up last month. Ultimately, he confirmed what I already pretty much knew to be the case (though the documents were not 'forged', the dates were merely tampered with). I guess he liked the dilemma, though:


Baseball Season

This year, I sprung for MLB's GameDay Audio. For 15 bucks, I can listen to ball games while I work. I love listening to baseball on radio. That was my childhood.

It's also nice that the Birds are playing well so far. I'd be shocked if it lasted, but it's been fun, and today's comeback was pretty thrilling.

Here's my question, though. I've suspected for a while that Dennis Sarfate is Jewish. His last name is pronounced the way a Sephardi would pronounce צרפתי. Anyone know anything about this, one way or the other? I'm awfully curious. Who was the last Jewish 0? John Lowenstein?


Karpas Menu

I’ve been informed that the Gedolim in Eretz Yisrael consider quinoa to be kitniyot. No surprise there. I don’t really even care; I don’t eat the stuff year round.

I’m seriously considering using quinoa for karpas, just to make a point (lehavdil, like the Gr”a was makpid to have kneidlach at his seder, just to show that gebrokts is mishugas).

I have not gathered up the guts to have salsa and corn chips for karpas (we’ll be having seder with relatives, otherwise it would be more of an issue), but maybe peanuts.


Great Story, Just Heard

A Lubavitcher Shaliach has been working on a potential Ba'al Teshuva for months. Finally, the guy is ready to become frum. He goes to the Shaliach and tells him, "OK. I'm ready to commit myself to Yiddishkeit. I just need one thing in order to make the final commitment - a dollar from the Rebbe. That Bracha will give me the strength to succeed."

The Shaliach answers him, "I'm sorry, but that's no longer possible."

"Did you hear me?" asks the BT. "If I get the dollar from the Rebbe, I'll become frum and take on all the Mitzvos!"

The Shaliach repeats, "I'm sorry, but that's no longer possible."

"Don't you understand? All I need is dollar from the Rebbe," pleads the BT.

"Don't you understand?" replies the Lubavitcher. "The dollar is dead!"