8/28/16

Bikinis and Rabbis: My Jewish Standard Dear Rabbi Column for August 2015

Rerunning last summer's advice. It seems to have become relevant again.

Dear Rabbi,

I’m a young modern Orthodox woman. I like to go to the beach in the summer. Recently some of my friends criticized me for wearing a bikini at the beach. They say their rabbis taught them that it is not in keeping with our religion to wear a bikini because it is clothing that is not modest. I see that the prevalent fashion for young and fit women at the beach or pool is mostly a bikini. What makes your fellow rabbis think that they have the authority to dictate to me and other women what fashions to follow on the beach —or off it?

Two Piece in Teaneck


Dear Two Piece,

I’m one rabbi who does not claim to have women’s fashion expertise. I am relieved that you ask me about rabbinic authority, rather than what is the right fashion for you.

I do know that in the world of fashion you hear often about trends, not standards. I recognize that there is a lot of variety in the choices that women have, on and off the beach.

One day this summer I had the occasion to walk the length of the boardwalk in a Long Island South Shore beach community and could not help but observe that bikinis are a quite common choice for women, young and middle aged, at the beach clubs along the way. And I did notice in the Target ad flyer in the Sunday newspaper that most of the women’s swim suits on sale are bikinis.

Before anyone criticizes me for gazing upon women, let me refer to a story about one of our greatest talmudic rabbis, Rabban Gamaliel. According to the Talmud, when he saw a beautiful woman, Gamaliel recited a blessing, Blessed be He who made beautiful creatures in this world.

I agree with Gamaliel. Beauty is something that God bestowed upon our world. When the appropriate fashion allows for us to admire beauty in a tactful and respectful way, we may do so, and perhaps we should thank God with a blessing.

Now you may wonder, why don’t other Orthodox rabbis agree with Rabban Gamaliel and with me? Why do many religious authorities who happily admit that they have no knowledge or understanding of fashion go ahead and teach and preach that it’s a religious obligation that women must cover up their arms and legs and midriffs?

I don’t know why other rabbis have taken upon themselves the authority to dictate fashion requirements to women. And I find it hard to approve of that.

It seems to me wrong for any man to require women to cover up. Even though there is a long-standing theme in Jewish customs for married women to cover their hair and there are other customs for all women to cover much of their skin, the requirement of long sleeves and long skirts using the category of “modesty” is at best capricious. In the preponderance of contexts it also is out of step with the normal and customary notions of fashion in our general communities.

And one more thing. It is not a stretch for some folk to criticize the cover-up rules in Orthodox circles as yet another means of segregating women and as a way of denying them the freedom to choose and the rights to decide their own fashion options.

The notion that covering up all of your skin on the hot summer beach or at the pool or in the marketplace around town is connected to virtue is patently unfounded. Hence the rules that mandate overdressing are arbitrary annoyances at best.

Yet I’ve been told that there is a new women’s clothing store on Cedar Lane in Teaneck that sells kosher swimsuits made of nylon and polyester, comprising pants under a skirt and elbow length sleeves. I would not be surprised if these bathing costumes have tags on them certifying rabbinical approval.

Truly, I have no idea where my colleagues got the notion that wearing a bikini at the beach is a bad thing. I can’t explain or justify this rabbinic attitude to you. My advice to you is to follow your own notions of comfort and the prevailing styles and fashions of your immediate community.

And if anyone criticizes you, you may answer with a confident and polite reply, Thank you for your opinion. I will wear whatever I deem appropriate.

Tzvee Zahavy earned his Ph.D. from Brown University and rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. He is the author of many books, including these Kindle Edition ebooks available at Amazon.com: “The Book of Jewish Prayers in English,” “Rashi: The Greatest Exegete,” “God’s Favorite Prayers” and “Dear Rabbi” — which includes his past columns from the Jewish Standard and other essays.

8/19/16

Is Olmypic Swimmer and Sex Symbol, Ryan Lochte Jewish?

No, we do not think that swimmer Ryan Lochte is a Jew. His national team bio does not specify his religion. We would guess from his last name that his family goes back to Dutch Protestant roots.

Wikipedia reports, "Ryan Lochte was born in Rochester, New York, the son of Ileana "Ike" (née Aramburu) and Steven R. Lochte. His mother is of Spanish and Basque ancestry and was born and raised in Havana, Cuba, while his father is of German, Dutch and English descent."

The Times' Style section had an extensive article about Lochte.

Ryan Lochte, Olmypic Swimmer and Sex Symbol

The U.S. swimmer Ryan Lochte is poised to be the breakout star of the 2012 Summer Games, both in and out of the pool.

Ryan Lochte, Olmypic Swimmer and Sex Symbol - Slide Show

Mr. Lochte, 27, is being groomed to be a breakout Olympic superstar, with millions in corporate sponsorships.

Update April 2013: Lochte has an E! reality show, starting Sunday April 21 at 10pm EDT.

Here is a funny video interview about the show - watch to the end.



Hat tip to anonymous!

8/12/16

Should we fast on Tisha B'Av?

No. I believe we should abolish the practice of fasting to commemorate the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple on the ninth day of the month of Av, known as Tisha B'Av (falling on August 14 in 2016).

Now before you convene a synod to excommunicate me, know that I am in good company. In the third century CE the greatest Tanna, Rabbi Judah the Prince, tried to abolish Tisha B'Av.

My son Yitz called my attention to this passage below which records the rabbi's action [Soncino Babylonian Talmud (2012-04-25). Megillah and Shekalim (Kindle Locations 739-743). Kindle Edition.] and to Tosafot's glosses (at Megillah 5b) which reject the premise that someone could entertain the notion of abolishing Tisha B'Av.
R. Eleazar said in the name of R. Hanina: Rabbi planted a shoot on Purim, and bathed in the [bathhouse of the] marketplace of Sepphoris on the seventeenth of Tammuz and sought to abolish the fast of the ninth of Ab, but his colleagues would not consent. R. Abba b. Zabda ventured to remark: Rabbi, this was not the case. What happened was that the fast of Ab [on that year] fell on Sabbath, and they postponed it till after Sabbath, and he said to them, Since it has been postponed, let it be postponed altogether, but the Sages would not agree.
Of course, if Rabbi Judah the Prince (compiler of the Mishnah) once tried to abolish Tisha B'Av but the sages would not agree to it, I do not expect that the sages of our times will agree with me to abolish Tisha B'Av.

Yet here is why they should.

I concur that as a culture we need to remember the calamities of the past so that we can be vigilant and prevent the calamities of the future. But we need effective ritual memories that are clear and unequivocal. Tisha B'Av commemorates that the city of Jerusalem and the Temple in it were destroyed.

Because the city has been rebuilt in modern Israel, this befogs the symbolism of the past destruction and renders it less effective.

I have been mulling over this issue for thirty years or more. In 2012 I mused as follows (with a few edits added).

Is Tisha B'Av relevant? No I do not think that the fast of Tisha B'Av is relevant anymore. I need a holiday from Tisha B'Av.

That day was for a long time a commemoration through fasting and prayer over the destroyed city of Jerusalem and the Temple. I visited Jerusalem in May of 2011 (ed.: and again in 2013) and can attest that the city is not desolate. It is without reservations, glorious.

Who then wants the bleak story to be told? Archetypally the militant "celebrity" archetype wants to keep recalling defeat, destruction and desolation, to spur team Jews on to fight the foes and to triumph at the end of time. That scheme may work for that archetype as long as the facts of reality do not fly smack in the face of the narrative. And when they do, what then? The narrative loses its force.

I cannot imagine Jerusalem in ruins. Period. And indeed, why should I perpetuate an incendiary story of gloom and doom into a diametrically opposite positive world of building and creativity? The era of desolation has ended.

For over twenty-five years, I've been lamenting the irony of lamenting over a city that is rebuilt. It's more rebuilt now -- way more -- than it was twenty five years ago. What do I do then about Tisha B'Av, the Jewish fast day of lament and mourning? Here is what I said those many years ago.

8/5/16

My Dear Rabbi Zahavy Talmudic Advice Column for August 2016: Are there any Magical Jewish Cures and Curses?

Your Talmudic Advice Column

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

My friend has started to scare me. She tells me often about her beliefs in the magical powers of religion and religious people. She claims to have witnessed faith healings right in front of her eyes. I think she’s gone off the deep end. Guide me please in what to do.

Scared in Secaucus

Dear Scared,

There are charismatic religious leaders in many religions who say that they can cure people of illnesses. In Judaism we say that we do not believe in, or practice, magical faith healing. The Torah condemns sorcerers, soothsayers, and witchcraft as abominations. But also note that the Torah tells us about Moses’ magical staff, capable of outperforming Pharaoh’s magicians. And some say the magical phrase Abracadabra comes from Aramaic words ארבדכ‭ ‬ארבא‭‬ that mean, “As I speak it, so it shall come to pass.”

7/24/16

My New Publication: A Revised edition for Kindle of Rabbi Joshua Trachtenberg's "Jewish Magic"

I'm happy to announce my new publication: a revised edition for Kindle of Rabbi Joshua Trachtenberg's "Jewish Magic."



This book is a comprehensive review of Jewish magic from the 10th to the 15th century. Well-known Jewish traditions are explained, such as why a glass is broken at a wedding, and how the expression mazel tov is related to a belief in astrology. Rabbi Trachtenberg deals with Golems, Succubi, the Lillim, (from Lilith, Adam’s first wife), and other magical creatures, some well-known such as werewolves, and others not so well, such as estrie, mare and broxa. He presents detailed descriptions of talismans, amulets, charms, and other magical objects. His chapters deal with dream interpretation, medical beliefs, necromancy, and other forms of divination. Rabbi Trachtenberg’s appreciation of the role of magic in Jewish culture is significant for the study of Judaism, and for the knowledge of modern beliefs and practices in religions in general.

The Title

The original title of this book in 1939 was Jewish Magic and Superstition. For this Kindle edition in 2016, I removed the tendentious terms superstition and superstitious from this otherwise excellent book and from its title, and I substituted where needed either the words religious or magical to lend the discussion greater consistency and to remove the distracting and polemical aspect of those terms from this pivotal study.
Commonly the word superstition is used to refer to aspects of religion that are not practiced by the majority of a culture. It has had a pejorative connotation since the days of Plato and Aristotle. Wikipedia (s.v. Superstition) informs us that:

In the classical era, the existence of gods was actively debated both among philosophers and theologians, and opposition to superstition arose consequently. The poem De rerum natura, written by the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius further developed the opposition to superstition.

Cicero’s work De natura deorum also had a great influence on the development of the modern concept of superstition as well as the word itself. Where Cicero distinguished superstitio and religio, Lucretius used only the term religio. Cicero, for whom superstitio meant “excessive fear of the gods” wrote that “superstitio, non religio, tollenda est,” which means that only superstition, and not religion, should be abolished… The term superstitio, or superstitio vana “vain superstition,” was applied in the first century to those religious cults in the Roman Empire which were officially outlawed.

 The Author

The author of this book, Rabbi Joshua Trachtenberg (b. 1904, d. 1959) was a reform rabbi at Temple Emeth in Teaneck, New Jersey. This book is an expansion of his Columbia University Ph.D. thesis.

Thanks to my valued collaborator, Reuven Brauner for his work improving the editing and formatting of this book for this Kindle eBook publication.



7/21/16

Free Download of the Complete Talmud in English

I am proud to provide for you a download of the complete Babylonian Talmud English translation, free.

The Talmud in English is online and free at Halakhah.com, http://www.halakhah.com/ - serving up 60,000+ downloads each month, 700,000+ each year.

TRANSLATED INTO ENGLISH WITH NOTES, GLOSSARY AND INDICES UNDER THE EDITORSHIP OF RABBI DR. I. EPSTEIN B.A., Ph.D., D. Lit. FOREWORD BY THE VERY REV. THE LATE CHIEF RABBI DR. J. H. HERTZ. INTRODUCTION BY THE EDITOR.

Contains the Sedarim (orders, or major divisions) and tractates (books) of the Babylonian Talmud, as translated and organized for publication by the Soncino Press in 1935 - 1948.

My site has the entire Talmud edition in PDF format and  about 8050 pages in HTML format, comprising 1460 files — of the Talmud.

I recommend that on your web site or blog you add a link to this site http://www.halakhah.com.

Highlights include: A formatted 2-column PDF version of the Talmud at Halakhah.com.

7/17/16

Jewish Black Magic: They Cursed Ariel Sharon with the Pulsa D'Nora in 2005

I've spent years teaching numerous college courses on religion - always with the disclaimer that we will cover only the positive aspects of the subject. Religion used for evil, that is for war or other forms of harm, is a misuse and distortion of systems of faith.

Curses, I reasoned, were a misuse and distortion of religious practice.

Curses invoked before the Rabin assassination changed my mind about that. Prior to that tragic event, on the eve of Yom Kippur, a group of "Kabbalists" intoned the pulsa curse outside the Rabin residence. Once again, in the summer of 2005, another group gathered to invoke the curse against P.M. Ariel Sharon. It seemed to me that curses indeed were part of our religion - like it or not.

One blogger, Canonist, dealt briefly with the curse back in July 2005, complete with a link to the video of the curse "ceremony" and quotations from learned professors:
Praying for Ariel Sharon's Death

Yesterday's death-curse seems thus far to have gone unanswered by the Almighty, but we'll see. Generally speaking, I don't write much about Israel and the disengagement, but this latest is quite interesting. PaleoJudaica's got a great roundup, including descriptions of the pulsa de-nura ceremony, its detractors, and the threat of prosecution that've come out of it. Meantime, you can actually watch the ceremony in this video, which, with a bunch of people in sweats reading from photocopies, looks oddly like some run-of-the-mill Jewish ceremony, like burning chametz or somesuch. The video comes courtesy of Samuel Heilman, via a listserv to which he wrote, with the subject "Jewish Jihadists": "Lest any of you think that only Islamists have jihadists, see the video below in which so-called 'religious Jews' pray for Prime Minister Sharon's Death in a Pulsa De Nura." Bold words on both sides. Let's see what comes of them.
Erudite rabbis have written about the matter, explaining that magic is not a part of Judaism, as in the following:

NYTimes on the Tranquil Euphoria of swimming

Photo
CreditRebecca Bird
THERE is no drug — recreational or prescription — capable of inducing the tranquil euphoria brought on by swimming. I do all my best thinking in the pool, whether I’m trying to figure out how to treat a patient’s complicated ailment or write a paper. Why that is is mysterious, but I have a theory.
Assuming you have some basic stroke proficiency, your attention is freed from the outside world. You just have to dimly sense the approaching wall before you flip turn and go on your way. Cut off from sound, you are mostly aware of your breathing. You have to traverse boredom before you can get to a state of mental flow. Now your mind is free to revel in nonlinear, associative thought. Nothing has to make sense. You suddenly become aware that time has passed. You are not sure what elapsed in that strange discontinuity, but the solution to a problem that escaped you on land is perfectly obvious emerging from the water — a rapturous experience.
More...

7/10/16

My Plea - In Mommy Edith's Memory - Quit Smoking Today

My mother was a strong athletic woman. I believe that she would be alive and 94 years old today if not for cigarettes.

In 2000 my mother Edith Zahavy passed away on the 4th day of Tammuz after six months of hospitalization at Mt. Sinai in NYC. She was 79.

For 63 years she smoked, mostly menthol cigarettes. The corporate tobacco pushers hooked her into addiction by giving her free samples outside her school, Hunter College, when she was a teenager. They supplied her habit for six decades.

For several years prior to her death she could hardly walk because of her profound vascular disease, heart disease and emphysema. Her last months in the hospital on a respirator were awful as all of the organs of her systems weakened and failed.

My mother was a beautiful, selfless, generous, creative, religious person who dedicated her whole life to her family, to her friends and to her students. She first brought us up (myself and my brother and sister) and then went on to teach in the NYC public schools. She stood behind my father, me and my siblings through thick and thin. But through the years she always smoked, mostly Newports and Salems.

As I remember her -- an active vibrant woman -- I plead with you -- if you smoke cigarettes -- QUIT TODAY. Please for the sake of the memory of my mother -- for your own sake -- for the sake of your spouse, your parents, your children, your friends -- please stop.

(Repost annually from 2006)

7/8/16

16th Yahrzeit of my mother Edith Zahavy

We are observing the Yahrzeit of my mother Edith Zahavy (aleha hashalom).

We miss her so very much. She would have loved to see the progress of her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and take pride in all of their accomplishments. She would have loved to read books to her little great-grandchildren and to watch them play and grow.

She was born in NYC and attended the public schools in Washington Heights. She watched from her classroom window as they built the George Washington Bridge.

She graduated from Hunter High School, Hunter College and went on to a career in public service at the OPA and then into the field education. Together with my dad, she founded the Park East Day School when my father was rabbi at the Park East Synagogue, then called Congregation Zichron Ephraim. She subsequently taught in NYC public schools for many years.

She is interred on Har Hamenuchot in Jerusalem. Her memorial site is here.