Jury Duty

June 22nd, 2017 Posted by Susan's Musings 35 comments

I am not sure that I was entirely truthful earlier this week. I’m not sure that anyone else with me in the room was either.

We were together in a courtroom, having been chosen as the pool from which a jury would be selected. The presiding judge asked a series of questions. For each question, if our answer was a yes, we were told to stand up and then he went around the room asking for our juror number, which he jotted down.

Some of the questions were straightforward. Was anyone not a citizen of the United States or not a resident of the city?  Then, after being asked to listen to a long list of police officers’ and detectives’ names, we were asked if we knew any of the aforementioned  people.  But some of the questions were trickier.

We were asked if we would give more or less credence to the testimony of a member of law enforcement than we would to anyone else. That was one of the ones that perplexed me. I was raised to respect the police and still do, but at the same time I also am aware of corruption on the force, including tampering with evidence. Depending on the impression made by an officer, I might give either more or less weight to his or her words than to someone else’s. As far as I was concerned, there really wasn’t enough time to think through the complexity of the question.

Then, the accused violent offender was asked to stand. We were asked if anything about her appearance might prejudice us. I’m pretty sure that most of us weren’t truthful about this question; only two people rose to say yes. The fact is that we humans are incredibly susceptible to people’s looks. I didn’t rise to my feet, not because I didn’t feel myself getting a first impression (and those do have a lasting impact) but because I didn’t want to offend some of the people around me who would make their own guesses and judgments about why I was answering yes, and possibly be hurt by what their guess of my reasoning was.

And so on and so forth. The experience was both uplifting and depressing. It was heartening to see so many people assemble and take their civic duty seriously. It was depressing to feel how overburdened and sluggish the legal system is. It was uplifting to see an extremely diverse group of hundreds of potentials jurors treating each other with respect and courtesy.  It was distressing to think how badly national, statewide and local politicians and educational elites run things, helping to ensure a steady stream of young, violent offenders.

I was not chosen for the trial, for which I am grateful. While I appreciate the concept of being tried by a jury of your peers, I’m not sure that is what actually takes place or that justice is best being served.

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What do the Hebrew words for law and compassion tell us?
Can it change the way we deal with students, employees, politicians and children?
Don’t let English translations limit your understanding.


Buried Treasure: Life Lessons from the Lord’s Language
29 Hebrew words poked, prodded and unpacked


Why the different childbirth rules?

June 21st, 2017 Posted by Ask the Rabbi 13 comments

In Leviticus 12 it talks about the purification of women after childbirth.

Why is the woman considered unclean for twice the amount of time if she gives birth to a female than if she gives birth to a male? (I understand being unclean from a medical perspective of healing, but I thought it took the same amount to heal regardless of gender) 


Dear Elin,

Our egos are struggling here! It seems that you have not read every Thought Tool or Ask the Rabbi that we have posted. (Disclaimer: we are smiling as we write this)

One of the absolutely worst translation mistakes in Scripture substitutes the word ‘unclean’ for the Hebrew word ‘TaMEI’. If we could, we would go through all English Bibles crossing that word out.

Please look at these two posts where we refute the bad translation and then come back so that we can deal with your specific question.



Having, hopefully, expunged that terrible translation from your mind, we want to preface our answer by saying that we cannot do justice to this topic in the format available to us, but we do hope to give you a glimpse into reality.

Now that you understand a bit more about what the word TaMEI conveys, you will see that the physical act of childbirth renders a woman TaMEI. She has lost a living part of herself and as much as she rejoices in the new baby, her body no longer houses a new life. That is a reality that mustn’t be ignored for her to move forward in a spiritually and mentally healthy way.

As to the discrepancy between giving birth to a son or a daughter,  if you think about it, you might see the beginning of an answer. In The Thorn Birds,  Colleen McCullough’s best-selling book, the mother gives birth to many boys and one girl. There is a poignant sentence which speaks of her wonderment at having boys emerge from her body which isn’t present where her daughter is concerned. She (partially mistakenly) thinks that she understands her daughter by virtue of shared femininity.

It is true that mothers have a deep understanding that the future ability to nurture new life is already present in their infant daughter’s body. They have given birth to someone who, with God’s blessing, will give birth as well. The extended period of TaMEI when the Temple stood, reflected that understanding.

Your question, like many we receive had multiple parts. As we did in this case, we often edit these questions to answer only one part. It is the only way that we can keep this column from becoming too long. We hope that this at least starts you down a fresh, many thousands of years old, way of thinking.

Now go cross out all the ‘unclean’s in your Bible,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

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Don’t be stuck with bad or limited translations!
This inside look into the wonders of the Hebrew language will astound you.


Buried Treasure: Life Lessons from the Lord’s Language

Do You Know Who Is Fighting America’s Real War?

June 20th, 2017 Posted by On Our Mind 4 comments

Back in the 90s I wrote a book, America’s Real War. In it I demonstrated how a deep canyon cuts through American culture. On one side are all those who believe that Biblically-based Judeo Christian values are vital for our nation’s survival. On the other side are those who view such values as primitive obstructions to progress. America’s real war is not between America and Russia, or China, Or Islam. Nor is it between rich and poor, blacks and whites, or men and women. It certainly isn’t between Jews and Christians. It is a war between those who see Judeo Christian values as vital and those who see them as obsolete barriers to progress. There are rich and poor on both sides. Blacks and whites on both sides. Men and women on both sides. And yes, there are both Jews and Christians on both sides. Whether today’s children will grow up in an America that bears any resemblance to the country that won World War II depends upon which side triumphs in America’s Real War. We are currently working on a new edition of the 20 year-old book with new chapters explaining, among other things, the bizarre alliance between secular fundamentalism and Islamic jihad.

Seeing Eye-to-Eye

June 20th, 2017 Posted by Thought Tools 18 comments

Reading your rabbi’s observations about a baby’s behavior is probably going to be as incongruous as overhearing a cannibal enthusing about a veggie burger made of sweet potato, quinoa and black beans with a little creamy lime aioli drizzled on top. (Not sure what lime aioli is?  Me neither.)

Nonetheless, I must tell you of something I recently noticed in an extremely cute little one year-old.  While I was talking to him, his eyes were not on the only moving part of my face, my mouth.  Instead, he gazed into my eyes.  This made no sense to me because in general, babies’ eyes are drawn to movement.  Yet while I was talking to him, he watched my motionless eyes instead of my moving mouth.

I was so puzzled by this that I tested it on a few other pre-talking little toddlers and discovered they all had this disconcerting tendency.  I am obviously accustomed to adults looking into one another’s eyes. But babies?  It would make most sense to me if their eyes were drawn to the mouths of those talking to them. But if they are not going to be looking at the moving mouth, why are they looking at the eyes rather than the conspicuous nose or huge expanse of forehead?

Ancient Jewish wisdom might suggest an explanation.  In the Lord’s language, Hebrew, the word for eye is AYIN while the word for mouth is PEH.  Those two words, AYIN and PEH are also the names of two consecutive letters in the Hebrew alphabet, the sixteenth and seventeenth letters, respectively.

ע     פ


There is no parallel in English since there is no generally accepted way of spelling a letter’s name.  The sixteenth letter, P, is just P rather than PEE (or PEIGH if you attended a prep school). The next letter is just Q and not QUEUE.  But in Hebrew, every letter has a name that is spelled in a specific way and has a meaning.

In the Hebrew alphabet, adjacent letters are spiritually connected. For instance, the first two letters, ALEF and BET spell out the Hebrew word for father. This reveals that fathers lead to the rest of the alphabet, in other words, literacy and communication is (perhaps counterintuitively) at risk if we eliminate fathers from society.

Similarly, AYIN (eye) and PEH (mouth) are linked by their adjacent positions in the alphabet.  What is more, since AYIN precedes PEH, we get the idea that eyes are vital to communication.  This is to say that we are being advised to look before we speak.

Of course, pausing and assessing a situation before speaking is important, but there’s an even more useful message.  We should look at the other person’s eyes even before he or she starts speaking.  Eyes telegraph a hint about the emotional flavor of the message the mouth is about to deliver.  In honest communication, the eyes and mouth deliver the same message.  But if the eyes hint callous ruthlessness and the mouth delivers friendly warmth, or the other way around, our emotional alarm bells start jangling.

This is one of the reasons that  in-person communication has not been obliterated by technology. Even Skype has a fatal flaw in that the two parties don’t look into each other’s eyes.  You see, the little camera lens is off to the side in the bezel surrounding the screen.  Yet, we all gaze at the picture of the person we’re talking to.  That means our Skype or FaceTime friends never see into our eyes and of course neither do we see into theirs.   Whether for business, friendship or romance, talking face-to-face adds a dimension to the relationship because of being able to look into eyes.

It turns out that even from a young age, our babies get this and though their eyes are normally attracted toward movement, in the case of communication, they know that the eyes come first.  They are listening to what your mouth says, but their little eyes are fixated upon your eyes.  It is from your eyes that they will know what you’re really feeling.   I don’t know who first coined the phrase, the eyes are the window into the soul, but it is pretty accurate.

In all interpersonal relations, whether in romance or business, what their mouth says is always important, but first notice what their eyes say.  

I invite you to uncover more practical life insights that spring from the Hebrew language. Letter names not only have meaning, but they also have numerical values, specific shapes and much more. God gifted us with a language that reveals truth. Whether you are fluent in Hebrew or can’t read a word, deliberately unwrapping that gift yields valuables. For a few more days, our best-selling attempt to do just that is on sale. Buried Treasure: Secrets for Living from the Lord’s Language will amaze you and allow you to explore 29 fundamental ideas such as love, money, laughter and family through God’s eyes.

Having it All

June 15th, 2017 Posted by Susan's Musings 42 comments

I got a lovely Mother’s Day card from one of my daughters that brought tears of joy to my eyes, but it also highlighted one of the enemies of successful living.

Among other sweet words, she wrote, “I am only now starting to realize how much of your own life and time and personal pursuits you must have sacrificed to raise us…”

The gratitude is appreciated and the sentiment is lovely. It is also wrong.  It is wrong, not only in terms of motherhood but also in terms of marriage, work and life.

My husband and I once sailed in the Caribbean. When we visited one island, the dock was not only extraordinarily narrow but also in ill repair. It shifted and rocked with each step we took. Being six months pregnant and not quite as nimble as usual, that posed a challenge. What made it even more worrying were the sharks swimming beneath the dock. Falling in the water was not really an acceptable option.

Imagine that there had been magnificent flower beds surrounding the dock instead. I would never have wanted to fall into them, crushing the beautiful blossoms. But my thought process would have been entirely different. I would have taken the same care walking as I did on the shark-surrounded dock, but instead of fear, pleasure would have been my companion.

Teachers often want their students to remain silent when walking down the hall. I once watched two first-grade teachers prepare their students for a trip past several other classrooms on their way to the music room. Neither teacher wanted her group to be disruptive. One teacher spoke about how important it was not to interrupt the other classes and how proud she would be if her students walked in a quiet and orderly fashion, two by two.

The other teacher spun a story, leading her students to picture that they were explorers going through the woods to spy on an enemy camp. One sound and they might be captured!

Both groups were quiet. First graders want to please their teachers. But the second group’s faces were filled with expectation and joy. They weren’t behaving well; they were having an adventure.

Our attitude towards what we are doing makes all the difference. Despite what my daughter wrote, I did not sacrifice to raise my children. That was my chosen vocation and the normal and inevitable consequence was that I had less time and energy for other activities. As a human being living in a world with 24 hours in a day, I can’t do everything and be everywhere. Among my friends I number social workers, CEOs, accountants, teachers, doctors and pilots. The same calculus applies to them.

There were days while my children were young when I couldn’t see how I could possibly cope for five more minutes. I distinctly remember hiding behind some dresses in my closet to steal just a few minutes of quiet.   When I got married I could have chosen a professional business path.  I could have had fewer children. I could have paid others to care for my children. I had the option of paying tuition at a private school or using the public schools rather than homeschooling as we did. I even could have walked out on my family, unshackling myself from my obligations and responsibilities. Would that have gotten me “all”?

Did I sacrifice by staying in my marriage and devoting myself to my family? Not at all. I made choices and reaped the benefits from those choices, while paying the associated costs. That is called reality.

It’s easy to imagine the life that we did not  choose through rose colored glasses. We picture that other us as an executive wearing expensive, tailored clothing and jetting off to exotic vacation locales. We see ourselves saving lives as a surgeon or being feted as teacher of the year.  Yet, somehow, we never picture ourselves as a bored lower level employee struggling to make ends meet or as an executive cowering in the ladies room steeling herself to fire an employee she likes.  Nor do we picture ourselves as someone earning a great living and relishing the challenges and successes of her career who frequently has to force a smile while yearning to be home with her child or having more energy to devote to her marriage.

There is no job, career, vocation or life that has only sunshine. It is up to us to focus on the positives in the life we choose rather than focusing on those things that our choice excluded. Our attitude, not our reality, decides whether we are sacrificing ourselves or finding fulfillment.

A culture of entitlement bombards us. It is a culture that breeds envy, resentment and unhappiness. I find it amusing that the first person recorded who said he “had it all,” meant it in an entirely different way than we use the phrase today. In Genesis 33:11, Jacob asks his wealthier, stronger and more established brother Esau to accept his gifts, claiming that he, Jacob, has ‘everything.’  By objective standards, he certainly didn’t. In fact, he was fleeing from one home and not sure where he’d end up.

He was focused on what he did have including his relationship with God, his family and the ability to choose how to lead his life. Can we realistically ask for more?

So, my darling daughter who is understandably sometimes overwhelmed by her busy household. Don’t think in terms of sacrifice. Think of the life you have chosen and been granted; a husband, children, extended family, community and faith. Even when it is at its least attractive, acknowledge that you would choose it again. Take a minute to breathe, shed a few tears if you need to, but still be grateful for your life and know that the only way to “have it all,” is to choose that frame of mind. With a nod to the American poet, Robert Frost, we all face many roads that diverge in a wood, and how we think about the one we choose makes all the difference.

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Hebrew is different than any other language.
When you read important words backwards they often yield the opposite idea.
What’s the opposite of ‘family’? Freedom. If you worry that sounds negative, read more in

Buried Treasure: Secrets for Living from the Lord’s Language


“There is nothing better than reading through a book and seeing what your Dad thought was important, and then really understanding where your Dad’s ideas came from. And of course, when your Dad is Zig Ziglar, it is even better.”

Tom Ziglar

Wishing those injured by gunshot in Alexandria this morning, a full & speedy recovery

June 14th, 2017 Posted by On Our Mind 1 comment

Yes, I know…If only 1/100th of 1% of Americans are crazy, (that’s one person in 10,000, and you know from looking around you that is is higher than that, right?) and every really crazy person acts out abominably only once each year, we ought to have about 85 really crazy bad incidents every day. So we’re quite lucky here in America. This morning was bad enough but at least we don’t have 85 such events a day.

Still, I’m curious. Will progressive socialists like Bernie and Hillary, like George Soros and Sen Chuck Schumer (NY) and their shills in media, government bureaucracies, entertainment, unions, and academia admit that their unrestrained and hyperbolic attacks on Pres. Donald Trump these last six months might just have qualified as hate-speech and maybe carries a little responsibility for this morning? If they do, I’ll commend them but I’m not holding my breath.

Our son just ‘came out.’

June 14th, 2017 Posted by Ask the Rabbi 48 comments

How do I answer my son who has declared he is homosexual?  My beliefs are against this practice.


Dear L.,

You must be in tremendous pain and we pray that you feel ‘hugs’ from God as you go through this time.

So many parents are undergoing this challenge in our days. The entire ethos surrounding us says that this is your problem not your son’s, and, yet, you are faithful to a tradition that existed for centuries before ‘modern’ thinking came into vogue and will still be around when the ‘modern’ becomes old-fashioned.

We want to remind you, during your time of anguish, that contrary to contemporary norms of positioning nearly everything in terms of identity politics, Scripture does not accept the existence of a person defined as a ‘homosexual’.  There are many sins and a male having sex with another male is one of those sins.  When a man engages in a Biblically prohibited activity called homosexuality, it doesn’t change who he is. Similarly, a Jew who engages in the Biblically prohibited conduct of eating a ham sandwich does not change his identity into being a “ham-eater”.  In other words, homosexual is a behavior, not an identity.  In spite of what your son or the latest social science might believe, he is not a homosexual.  He is your son who has yielded to a temptation to sin.  He may be feeling confused and his peer group are patting him on the back, praising him for his courage in ‘coming out.’  The fact that he sinned yesterday is no guarantee that he will continue to do so.   In spite of popular culture’s wrong-headed insistence, men can and often do abandon the practice of homosexuality.   Obviously we realize how out of step our teachings are with today’s popular culture but our mission is to tell the truth rather than to win friends (Should those two goals be in conflict.)

I (Susan) once read a book aimed at parents coping with children whose behavior was tremendously painful to the parents. The author spoke with compassion and practical wisdom to parents whose children were prostitutes and criminals, drug addicts and predators. However, she abandoned her general compassionate attitude to tell parents who were disappointed and suffering because their children practiced homosexuality that they, not their children, had a problem. Do not let yourself believe that.

You, as so many others, see your child going down a path contrary to God’s directions. You may be feeling guilt and shame along with distress and sadness. Those are most likely counterproductive emotions.

The question, as we see it, isn’t so much what you should ‘answer’ your son as how to continue your relationship. Naturally, we encourage you to discuss your situation with your personal spiritual leader. In addition, we think that modern technology provides a tremendous boon. We would recommend linking online (and perhaps that will lead you to individuals with whom you can meet locally) with others who share your beliefs and your challenge.

While there is a common theme, each family has its own dynamics and each child has his or her own complexity. We think you will find solace in sharing your story with those who understand and hearing what others choose to say or do will provide you with ideas that will help you forge your own path as they resonate or don’t resonate with you. We would be extremely hesitant to give a blanket response to such a complex question.

Remember that he is still your son.  He is not a new alien being. He should know that loving him and rejecting his actions are not contradictory.

Always, of course, keep praying and reminding yourself that salvation can come in an instant.

Wishing you blessing,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

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What insights can we get by looking at the Hebrew words for parents and children? Quite a lot. Read this book to understand the profound message behind those and 28 additional powerful words.
Buried Treasure: Secrets for Living from the Lord’s Language 

Bernie Sanders’ Christophobia

June 13th, 2017 Posted by Thought Tools 77 comments

If you have been reading Thought Tools for a while or enjoyed any of our other ancient Jewish wisdom resources, you probably suspect, correctly, that you have a better Jewish education than most secular people of Jewish descent. You might even know that the entire Jewish nation take its name from Jacob’s fourth son, Judah.   Why is this so? Because the meaning of Judah, Yehuda in Hebrew, is gratitude, and ancient Jewish wisdom identifies the trait of gratitude as one of the most important defining characteristics of Jewish identity.

Although descended from Jewish bloodlines, Bernie Sanders probably doesn’t know the above information and as a declared atheist he has chosen to reject his ancestors’ faith. Nonetheless, in the eyes of America and the world he is a Jew. For this reason, I am sharing an important column written by our friend Ben Stein, which so effectively captures the view of the American Alliance of Jews and Christians. It was just published in The Spectator (www.Spectator.org) where his work regularly appears.  I am grateful for permission to share it with our Thought Tool subscribers.

Ben Stein’s Diary

I am a Jew. All of my ancestors have been Jews since Judaism was founded almost 6,000 years ago on the belief of a monotheistic God. I pray in Hebrew every morning and every night. And I am deeply, cruelly, painfully embarrassed at my fellow Jew, Bernie Sanders, Senator from Vermont.

Within the last few days, from his nuthouse chair in a U.S. Senate Committee Room, he blasted a fine man named Russell Vought. Mr. Vought had been nominated by another fine man, Donald Trump, President of the United States, to be deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. That’s an extremely hard job. I worked with those brilliant people forty some years ago, especially with the mega genius, Paul O’Neil, on a bill to provide universal health care to all Americans. I guess it would have been called Nixon-Care if it had passed.

Mr. Vought was tormented and lectured to by Bernie Sanders because he had written some time earlier that he was a Christian and he felt as if all men and women who were not Christian “stood condemned” before God. Sanders said this statement was “Islamophobic,” a favorite phrase of trouble makers. He said it also offended Jews. And as he yelled at Mr. Vought, Mr. Vought simply stood his ground and said, basically, “I am a Christian and I am not going to walk away from Christ.”

This left Bernie sputtering with impotent rage.

But I am a lot more of a Jew than Bernie Sanders (my family never changed our names and I unabashedly support Israel). And I am HUMILIATED that a fellow Jew took it on himself to mock and belittle those who trust and believe in Christ, Jesus. We live in a country that is a free country as far as the worship of God is concerned. We Jews have been taken in and loved and cared for by the great majority of Americans who are Christian. This is a free country but it is also a Christian country, to be honest. And the Christians here have been saintly to us Jews. A large example—Go to the U.S. cemetery at Normandy and look at the endless rows of gravestones for those who were killed by the tough as nails Nazis in Normandy. Those gravestones are overwhelmingly crosses.

The men under those crosses were not Jews. Yet they freely gave their lives to save the world — and Jews in particular — from the Nazis’ genocide against us Jews. I feel an on-my-knees gratitude to the men buried there and all over the world who died young to protect us from the race killers.

And now cometh Bernie Sanders, a Jew, to mock the way of the cross and say it offends Muslims. Guess what, Bernie: It wasn’t Muslims who saved America. It wasn’t Muslims who saved us Jews. It was the American Christian who believed that those who do not follow Christ will be judged harshly for it on Judgment Day.

Now, these people — and I especially include my wife’s family, from beloved Arkansas — are saints to me. If they want to believe in Christ and that no man cometh to the Father but through the Son, I’m all for it. I’m all for anything they want to believe. And a belief in a merciful, loving God, is very far from something I want to question. I need all of the loving and forgiveness I can get. So does everyone I know, Jew or Gentile. I don’t believe that American Christians are filled with Judgment and I am quite sure that it is this forbearance that I will have to thank for every day I have above ground here on earth. I would happily go back on my horse and go to work for Russell Vought at OMB if I were younger and I don’t believe he would mistreat me. If he wants to believe I stand condemned because I was not baptized, he’s welcome to it and I pray that he’s wrong. But I know that here on earth, God’s work must surely be our own (in JFK’s words). And here on earth, the people who do the work of kindness and compassion are Christians. I am not the slightest bit worried about America’s Christians. I am terrified of the Muslims — not here, but all over the world in whatever hellhole they are planning their next attack. And, yes, I do believe the great majority of American Muslims are fine people. (Although I do wonder where the million man Muslim marches condemning Islamic terror are here in America or in London or in Manchester. What are they waiting for?)

So, Senator Sanders, I am not scared to death of Christ or of your Christophobia. Christianity, here in America, which has been such a great friend of us Jews, is far too powerful to be taken down by one angry Vermonter. But I am scared that as a nation, we among the political and media self-selected elite, so strongly blast “Islamophobia” but do not hear the onrushing sounds of Christophobia throughout the world and especially here at home.

Senator Sanders. This is a free country, as I keep saying. And it is also a Christian country. And this country has been unbelievably good to us Jews. I am ashamed of you and your fear and hatred of the religion that has, here in the glorious USA, made heaven on earth for us followers of the Old Book. But I am minded of something you should hear from the lips of the Fisherman. “Neither do I condemn thee. Go and sin no more.”

*   *   *

Thank you, Ben Stein, for saying so eloquently what so badly needed to be said. We are grateful to you.

This week’s featured resource is Buried Treasure: Secrets for Living from the Lord’s Language. It includes an entire chapter called, The Currency of Gratitude, along with chapters dissecting, exploring and sharing insights into another twenty-eight Hebrew words. It is a fun read that will leave a lasting impression. Get it at a special price right now.

Buried Treasure: Secrets for Living from the Lord’s Language
hardcover book


A Peek Behind the Ivanka and Jared Curtain

June 7th, 2017 Posted by Susan's Musings 73 comments

Shelves in my local library are filled with fictional books set in Amish communities. Considering that there are only about 250,000 Amish in North America, they are way over represented in current literature. I confess to enjoying many of these books. I am obviously not the only one to feel that way. Why are so many of us fascinated by foreign cultures?

Partially because we enjoy peering into the lives of people who live among us but who follow intriguingly different paths.

I am far more cautious about non-fiction. Once, while traveling through Utah, I noticed a book written by a woman who grew up in the Latter Day Saint community but was no longer a part of it. Before purchasing it, I checked with the store owner that it was a loving and respectful depiction rather than a vengeful attack. It was. Every community has its warts, but there is a difference between acknowledging those and distorting the truth in a mission to magnify the negatives of a lifestyle that is a blessing to many.

Books abound about the Orthodox Jewish community. Since I know this community rather well, I am more critical about these books. Actually Orthodox Jews comprise a broadly defined group consisting of dozens of sub-communities, all of which enjoy their own small theological and behavioral distinctions. Sometimes I spot foolish inaccuracies by authors whose research was inadequate; other times the author has a hostile agenda.   Many of these books do not accurately depict my life but nonetheless are authentic expressions of the author’s community, with its own unique blessings and challenges.

This brings me to Ivanka and Jared (Trump) Kushner. They are conspicuously visible while openly identifying as Orthodox Jews. The few times that they have traveled with the President by car or plane on the Sabbath has made national news in a way that I find misleading and confusing. Within the larger Jewish community, their actions spark loud controversy. Since many of my readers are interested in Jewish life, I thought you might enjoy getting a bit of an inside look as to what is  actually taking place.

First, the confusing terminology:  I’m reading in the press is that the couple got a ‘dispensation’ to travel by car or plane, an activity that is forbidden on Shabbat. That language makes me smile.  I grew up a block from a convent, a Catholic Church, and a Catholic school. To my understanding, dispensation is a Catholic term. There is no such thing in Judaism.

There is also no pope in Judaism. There is no single ultimate Jewish authority who has the universally accepted final word.  Broadly speaking, Orthodox Jews voluntarily choose to align with a specific stream of Orthodoxy, each of which has its own leaders. On broad issues these leading rabbis often make decisive statements.  On most questions individual rabbis have tremendous autonomy and people have the choice whether or not to follow their views.   Jews whose spiritual roots are in one Orthodox community would not rely on a ruling by a rabbi from another branch and vice-versa.

Ideally we each accept one leader as our own rabbi and when questions arise, this is the figure to whom we turn and whose guidance we accept. The relationship is by necessity a personal one as many questions can only be answered on a personal level – one can never apply an answer given to one specific person to any other person. For example, while there is no question that pork is not kosher, questions arise all the time about more nuanced kosher questions. Many factors are taken into account when answering these questions including how much of a financial loss is entailed if the item isn’t kosher, quantities of ingredients involved and the chemical composition of the utensils used in cooking. The more unique and personal the question is, the more individually nuanced is the answer.  I have watched my husband and father-in-law spend innumerable anguished hours trying to find the correct conclusion to a difficult question that was posed to them.

Ivanka and Jared, like all Jews, have the option to choose the rabbi they want to follow. Once they ask him a question, they not only may listen to him but they should listen to him. They have the responsibility of asking someone whose authority they verify and trust and he has the responsibility of doing all the necessary research, consulting with those more learned than he, and reaching a conclusion on whatever question he was asked. Another rabbi may indeed have come to a different conclusion. God is the final judge. It is in His hands to react in this world or the next one. There is no room for human backseat driving by those who don’t know all the facts.

Sabbath observance is a basic tenet of the Torah. It is the 4th Commandment and a huge deal. However, there are sometimes competing obligations. For example, our son was born on the Sabbath. We drove to the hospital because from the moment I went into labor I was in a special category.  Since the chances of having a baby on Shabbat are pretty high, my husband and I had, in advance, asked our rabbi all sorts of questions including things such as whether we should be driven by a non-Jew and how to handle documents the hospital would require us to sign. The Israeli military deals with questions of Shabbat all the time as do many Jewish medical professionals.

Jared and Ivanka’s situation is unusual.  The president of the United States whose actions could have enormous impact, depends upon them.  It appears that they asked a certain rabbi for guidance and were told that the competing obligations in their case indicated that they should prioritize the need to drive or fly above Orthodox Shabbat observance.  They would probably also have been advised on how to do what they had to do in ways that minimized the extent of Sabbath violation.  There is no assurance that another rabbi would have responded in the same way but since only their rabbi was in possession of all the facts, anyone else’s view is largely irrelevant.  In following their rabbi’s guidance, they have acted in accordance with Orthodox Jewish tradition.  Furthermore, it is nobody else’s business.

Except that it is. Since Sinai, Jews have made huge sacrifices to observe Shabbat.  During the first part of the 20th century, Jews were routinely fired from their jobs for not showing up on Saturday. The accepted work week for those with limited English, no connections and poor or uncredentialed skills was Monday through Saturday.  For Sabbath observant Jews, losing job after job sometimes meant watching their children not have enough to eat. Sadly, they sometimes were even fired by secular Jewish employers and pressured to lower their standards by relatives struggling to survive.

Even today, observing Shabbat often comes with professional and financial sacrifice. Yes, God is the final arbiter of success and amazingly frequently people overtly see the ‘payback,’ but in our human terms there is a cost. Exceptionally faithful Jews struggled mightily to observe Shabbat to the best of their ability in Nazi concentration camps and in the Soviet Gulag. Stories of Shabbat loyalty under punitively oppressive circumstances have been passed down from one generation to the next for many centuries.

For this reason, the Kushners’ behavior has evoked an emotional reaction from some Jews. Much of this has come from Jews who ignore Shabbat and who hate President Trump and everything about him.  No attention ought to be paid to these individuals.  There are others who are Shabbat observant but who care more about hating the president than about Torah values.  Their criticisms of the Kushners should also be ignored. Finally, there are those who try mightily to observe the Shabbat and holy days and who have endured excruciatingly difficult conversations with and/or repercussions from bosses, clients, teachers and non-religious family members who object to their religious commitment.  These Jews feel that Jared and Ivanka betrayed them by not using their unusual public platform to demonstrate the inviolability  of Shabbat. They worry that they too will be directed to seek a “dispensation” just like the Kushners.

Knowing many people who have experienced emotionally intense encounters with family, friends and business associates over the Sabbath, I empathize with this concern.  Perhaps sharing the above information might help. What do you think?

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Were a third of Jacob’s sons illegitimate?

June 6th, 2017 Posted by Ask the Rabbi 28 comments

Deuteronomy 23:3 says that a bastard is not part of the assembly unto the 10th generation.  How can that be when half of Jacob’s sons were born to his concubines and became the heads of tribes?


Dear Peggy,

If you are not a lawyer you may not know the difference between manslaughter, 1st degree murder and 2nd degree murder. If you aren’t a gourmet chef you may not distinguish between Hungarian paprika and Spanish paprika. Yet, in the courtroom or a five-star kitchen a great deal may hinge on those distinctions.

The Hebrew word used in Deuteronomy 23:3 is mamzer. It is generally mistranslated as ‘bastard’.  This is not what the term means. Mamzer is a technical term that refers to the very rare case of a child of a man and a woman who are not allowed to marry, such as siblings or a married woman and someone other than her husband. So, for example, while the Torah much prefers children to be created within marriage rather than outside of that holy covenant, the child of an unmarried couple who are legally able to get married but did not do so, is not a mamzer.