Forward Thinking

Introducing the Torah Party, My New Favorite Ritual

By Abby Sosland

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Just a few months before he was killed in a 1996 bus bombing, my JTS classmate Matt Eisenfeld held a party in his Jerusalem apartment. It was a Saturday night, but it was hardly a typical Saturday night event. It was a siyyum, a conclusion of study, celebrating his completion of Masechet Kiddushin, a long and difficult tractate of Talmud.

I’ll never forget the sense of joy at that party, as Matt taught us a passage from the tractate, and we ate and drank in his honor. It felt like a party with purpose, a party that honored his personal commitment to study, and it inspired me to begin to learn Talmud on my own. I may not finish a whole tractate, I thought at the time, but I can start…and I’ll see where it goes.

Since then, I have completed a few tractates of Talmud, and I’ve always thought of Matt at the concluding ritual.

But when I began to leyn, or chant, from the Torah, it never occurred to me that I could do the same. Jewish tradition doesn’t have any ritualized siyyum for reading the whole Torah aloud. So when my cousin told me he had hosted a Kiddush when he finished reading the text, I knew my next move. I started to keep track of the aliyot that I read, and I began to request the ones I hadn’t read yet for each next assignment. It got me to synagogue regularly, and it helped me get to know the people in the new communities I was joining. And this past summer, when I read the final aliyah that I had left, I hosted my own Kiddush, which I like to refer to as my Torah party.

With Simchat Torah around the corner, I’ve been thinking a lot about this Torah party. The thing is, it’s not really a thing in the Jewish community. Yet. But I think it should be.

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Why Jewish Silence on Ferguson Is Not an Option

By Rori Picker Neiss

Demonstrators protest the killing of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri / Getty Images

After weeks upon weeks of news reports that detail what seemed to be never-ending violence in Israel and Gaza, compounded by accounts of a rise in anti-Semitic attacks in Europe and Canada and even across the United States, it would have been so simple to sit back over this past week-and-a-half and breath a sigh of relief as the headlines began to broadcast violence outside of the Jewish community.

Though I live about six miles from the city of Ferguson, MO, I am not kept awake at night with dread of the violence that might reach my home. I do not live under a curfew or find my days and nights punctuated by the sound of sirens. Like so many others in the world, I saw the images of Ferguson police in riot gear and individuals looting stores and throwing Molotov cocktails through a television screen, not through my front windows. While those in the rest of the country demand dialogue around race relations in America, governmental responses to violence, and allegations of police misconduct, I could choose the luxury of continuing on in my day-to-day life with no adjustments made for the tensions and fears in my own backyard.

Silence is a luxury, but it is not an option.

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Counting the Omer and Nigeria's Kidnapped Girls

By Naomi Ackerman

Nigerian women call for the freedom of Chibok’s kidnapped girls / Getty Images

Last month, an Islamist armed group called Boko Haram abducted 276 girls from a school in Chibok, Nigeria. Presumably, these girls will be killed or sold into slavery and child marriages.

Even though I sit here in Los Angeles, this crisis affects me personally, deeply and immediately. You see, I am a Jewish mother of three daughters: Zohar, Ella and Hadar. And even though I do not know the names of the 276 girls, I know who they are. I see them clearly. They are my Zohar, my Ella, my Hadar.

I know what slavery means. I grew up reciting, every year at the Passover Seder, “In each generation, each person must envision being freed from slavery in Egypt.”

If I can imagine that, how can I not imagine what the mothers (and fathers and sisters and brothers) of those girls are feeling? And how can I not act upon my feelings of sadness, fear and outrage? After all, the Torah teaches, “You shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev. 19:34). Those girls and their families are not strangers to me. They are my family.

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My Search for the Perfect Biblical Blue

By Jeffrey K. Salkin

A few of the author’s many blue inks on paper. / Jeffrey K. Salkin

It’s time for me to confess my hobby. I collect and use fountain pens. I have no memory of how I first got into this particular way of writing. No, it has nothing to do with the fabled “Today I am a fountain pen” bar mitzvah speech (though, having gone to many vintage pen shows, I can attest to the fact that many a bar mitzvah gift has wound up on the sales tables).

As a fountain pen user, I use bottled ink and/or ink cartridges. I use a lot of blue inks. Probably too many. It’s because I’ve been searching for the perfect blue ink — the precisely right shade. I am not alone; this is a common theme among pen lovers.

People actually argue about this stuff. Part of those arguments include kaddishes for some beloved blue inks that are no longer available — except to Ebay prowlers, perhaps. Parker Penman, for example, is a cult favorite. It is in ink heaven somewhere — hopefully being used by the Holy One Blessed Be He to write the names of the righteous in the Book of Life.

What’s the deal with this incessant — one might even say obsessive — search for that perfect shade of blue? (It’s not limited to ink enthusiasts, either; have you ever seen people go crazy over the different versions of blue in the Benjamin Morris paint chart?) Recently it’s occurred to me that my search for the “perfect” blue is just a modern, secular version of Judaism’s frustrated and frustrating search for the “real” and historically accurate shade of the biblical tekhelet, mentioned in this week’s Torah portion, Terumah.

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Saving Trayvon Martin — With Jewish Law

By Eliyahu Federman

getty images

Under Jewish law one must protect oneself by injuring, instead of killing, a potential assailant, unless killing is the only option. One is also required to avoid any situation in which one’s life may be placed in danger.

If George Zimmerman had abided by these simple principles, he should have chosen to avoid conflict and danger, if at all possible. He should have only used enough force necessary to protect his life when he confronted Trayvon Martin in a Sanford, Fla. subdivision on February 26, 2012.

He might never would have opened fire and certainly wouldn’t have shot to kill. Trayvon Martin might be alive today.

Trials for defendants should take place in courts of law, not courts of public opinion. The point here is not to second-guess the jury, but to look at the facts from a perspective in Jewish law and perhaps draw lessons on where policy can be improved to avoid the likelihood of such tragedies.

Under so-called Stand Your Ground laws, a person is not required to avoid conflict and has no duty to retreat from a potentially dangerous encounter. If you can safely retreat to avoid injury, Jewish law requires you do that.

The New York Times reported that Zimmerman earned an A in a college class that delved into Florida’s Stand Your Ground laws. Thus, Zimmerman’s intimate knowledge of Stand Your Ground laws may have influenced his decision to follow Martin that fateful night (even though it was not invoked in his defense at trial). He knew that legally he would not have to retreat if a confrontation ensued.

Despite a 911 dispatcher’s request that he not follow Martin, it appears that Zimmerman continued to follow Martin, or at least got of his car. That amounted to unnecessarily putting himself in a potentially dangerous situation.

The Torah says, “[t]ake utmost care and watch yourself scrupulously.” (Deuteronomy 4:9, 15). Taking care of ones life was later codified by the Rambam in his code of Jewish law. (Rotzei’ach 11:4 and the Hoshen Mishpat 427:8).

Rabbis have understood this to mean that any unnecessary action that presents an immediate danger, such as entering a burning building, or walking on a rickety bridge that may collapse. Even putting coins in one’s mouth lest they transmit bacteria, is prohibited. (See Rabbi Yaakov Etlinger in Binyan Zion 137, Rosh Hashanah 16b, and Yerushalmi ibid. 8:3). It is fair to extrapolate from the prohibition against unnecessarily endangering yourself that chasing a suspicious looking person with a gun, in the middle of the night - would be considered an unnecessarily dangerous activity (far more dangerous than putting coins in your mouth that may have bacteria).

It is not as if it was Zimmerman’s job to get out of his car with a gun in the middle of the night to follow someone whom he suspected was up to no good. He called the police because he knew it wasn’t his job to enter this potentially life-threatening situation.

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Alleged Child Molesting Pastor Wrapped in Torah Scrolls

By Jay Michaelson

Apparently oblivious to how offensive this would be to any non-messianic Jew, Atlanta pastor Eddie Long — who privately settled lawsuits with several men who had alleged he molested them as boys, and whose wife recently divorced him for the same reason — allowed himself to be wrapped in a Torah scroll by messianic ‘Jew’ Ralph Messer.

It gets both more outrageous, and more absurd. Messer, speaking “on behalf of the Jewish people, the land of Israel, and the God of Israel,” anointed Long as a “king” to the rousing cheers of the crowd. He seated Long on a “throne” (actually a comfy-looking leather chair) and draped him in a small-size tallit, the kind you find at nice conservative shuls across the country. Messer explained that the Torah scroll was 312 years old, and found at “Auschwitz-Birkendau” (that’s how he pronounced it, several times). “It was a Holocaust scroll,” he said, adding “I collect scrolls.”

There were additional details that doubtless escaped notice of casual visitors, but which get progressively more offensive the more knowledgeable one is. For example, Messer described removing the Torah’s cover as “removing the foreskin.” And at the climax of the ritual, after wrapping Long in the Torah, he placed the scroll’s gartel (belt) around Long himself, stating that Long had become the Torah, become the King. Fascinatingly, this is exactly the corporealizing ritual performed by heretical Sabbatean groups, except here with a Christianizing gloss (“the word become flesh”) that makes Long into the Messiah Himself.

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