Now updated with two years of my Dear Rabbi columns

Dear Rabbi provides advice for life based on Talmudic wisdom and includes essays on a variety of timely subjects.


Is Warren Beatty Jewish?

No, the actor Warren Beatty is not Jewish. He  was raised in a devout, churchgoing Baptist family, but he is not known to be a practicing Baptist now.

Barbra Streisand said
of Beatty: "He's an incredibly gifted...gentile."

In New Yorker, Woody Allen (definitely Jewish and now 74) hilariously mocked the story that Beatty (now 73) slept with 12,775 women during his lifetime in his essay, "Will the Real Avatar Please Stand Up".
I suppose gods in human form may well have dropped in on this blue marble from time to time, but I strongly doubt that one has ever tooled around Rodeo Drive in a T-bird with the aplomb and good looks of Warren Beatty. Reading “Star,” the new biography by Peter Biskind, one can’t help but be blown away by the actor’s overwhelming accomplishments. Think of the movies, the grosses, the reviews, the Oscars, the endless nominations springing from this quadruple-threat voracious reader and marketing maven, who is nimble at the Steinway, savvy in the ways of politics, and a full-time Adonis, with accolades accruing from divers ones who believe he belongs not just up on the silver screen but in the Oval Office. More spectacular than a Tinseltown résumé that would humble Orson Welles are the star’s legendary exploits on the bedsprings. Here recounted are innumerable love affairs, with women of every heft and feel and station in life, from actresses to models, hatcheck girls to First Ladies. It seems that endless varieties of pulchritude salivated to plunge into the kip with this virtuoso of the percales. “How many women were there?” asks the author. “Easier to count the stars in the sky. . . . Beatty used to say that he couldn’t get to sleep at night without having sex. It was part of his routine, like flossing. . . . Allowing for the stretches when he was with the same woman, more or less, we can arrive at a figure of 12,775 women, give or take.” As a supplicant who has yet to achieve double digits when it comes to bedding the juicy gender, and those conquests requiring the aid of my Hypno-disk, I could not help imagining the following account of one gal’s irresistible swoon into the Guinness Book. But let her speak for herself...more...

Is Bob Dylan Jewish?

Yes, Bob Dylan is a Jew. He is a strange and famous musician whose personal views on things have always been hard to figure out.

Dylan turned 74 on his birthday, May 24, 2015.

Dylan was born a Jew named Robert Allen Zimmerman (Hebrew - Shabtai Zisel (or Zushe) ben Avraham) in 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota, and raised there and in Hibbing, Minnesota. His paternal grandparents, Zigman and Anna Zimmerman, emigrated from Odessa, Russia around 1905. His mother's grandparents, Benjamin and Lybba Edelstein, were Lithuanian Jews who arrived in America in 1902. His paternal grandmother's maiden name was Kyrgyz and her family originated from Istanbul.

Dylan’s parents were Abram Zimmerman and Beatrice "Beatty" Stone. When Dylan was six, his father was stricken with polio. The family returned to Hibbing, where Zimmerman grew up.

A few years back Dylan recorded a Christmas album. Ryan McDuff, from the blog Bully! Pulpit reported:
LOS ANGELES, Calif -- Bob Dylan is recording his first Christmas album, Bullypulpit.com has exclusively learned and has been quietly compiling a collection that includes both Christmas carols and modern songs. At least four songs have reportedly been recorded for the album including, “Must Be Santa,” “Here Comes Santa Claus,” “I’ll Be Home For Christmas" and “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

The recording sessions have been taking place at fellow recording artist Jackson Browne's Groove Master’s Studios in Santa Monica, California, where Browne produced his album, "I’m Alive."

Prominent media expert and best-selling author Michael Levine said the move by Dylan was "completely consistent with his longstanding tradition of doing the unexpected. Concerning Bob Dylan literally nothing would surprise me which of course is part of his lasting appeal. He confounds like no other pop artist ever."

The inclusion of “O Little Town of Bethlehem," written by an Episcopal priest named Phillips Brooks in 1867 after a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, is likely to fuel speculation about Dylan's religious beliefs that have swirled ever since he publicly converted to Christianity in 1979, recorded explicitly religious material on three subsequent albums and for a time refused to play his old songs. Religious references on subsequent recordings became less overt after 1981's "Shot of Love."

The other three songs, “Must Be Santa” by Hal Moore and Bill Fredricks, “Here Comes Santa Claus” by Gene Autry and Oakley Haldeman and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” by Buck Ram, Kim Gannon and Walter Kent were all written between 1943 and 1960.

"A Christmas album by Bob Dylan in the pipeline doesn't really shock me," said Scott Marshall, author of a forthcoming book on the singer, "God and Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life". "At first glance it may sound bizarre, but I don't think Dylan cares much about what his detractors might make of it. Dylan still sings songs from "Slow Train Coming" to this day and he's both never renounced being Jewish or renounced his experience with Jesus some three decades ago. He remains enigmatic and this will probably be talked about for years to come."
Dylan's spiritual pendulum swings back and forth. In 2007 Dylan went to Chabad Lubavitch for Yom Kippur, where he got an aliyah to the Torah. JTA Reported back then:
Bob Dylan's religious odyssey took a turn home on Yom Kippur.

The folk legend attended services at the Chabad-Lubavitch of Atlanta... Dylan was born Jewish but has dabbled in several faiths.

He arrived at morning services wearing a ski cap and a tallit, and stayed for the duration, the Web site said. Dylan was called to the Torah for an aliyah by his Hebrew name, Zushe ben Avraham, according to the Chabad outpost's rabbi, Yossi Lew.

Dylan was in Atlanta for a concert following the holiday.
As always be sure to see my friend Larry Yudelson's Tangled Up In Jews site for more background on the Jews and Jewishness connected with Bob Dylan.


The Right Way to Teach the Talmud

There is a right way to teach Talmud. All Yeshivas essentially teach Talmud the same way - select the Tractate to teach -- open it and start reading. That is not the right way.

Here is a link to a short article that I wrote a while back, "Teaching Mishnah, Midrash and Talmud at the University."

I outline some of the course methods I have used in university courses and I make some generalizations, such as:
...I do not use the traditional Yeshiva approach to designing a "syllabus", i.e., start on page 2A and learn as much as time permits in the tractate. I also do not emphasize the notion of the texts as part of "the Halakhah." This concept is a relatively modern construct, composed of many strata of texts, commentaries and codes. Some would argue it is a tool of those who foster rabbinic authority rather than a purely intellectual asset of our rabbinic heritage.
Please see my article for more details. /repost from 8/5/06/


Does the Talmud say that Gay Sex Causes Earthquakes?

I'm quoted  in the Pacific Standard as an authority on the cause of earthquakes, "Gay Sex Caused the Earthquakes in Nepal."

On 8/23/2011 I wrote this post:

Does the Talmud say that Gay Sex Causes Earthquakes? In 2010 I covered this nonsensical topic after the Haiti earthquakes. (At that time Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic cited me on this subject.)

Here it is again.

Yes, the Talmud does say that gay sex causes earthquakes.

I mused, That must be some awesome gay sex.

But seriously, if one can get serious over this bizarre idea, some cockamamie rabbis were going around preaching that gay sex caused Haiti's earthquakes.

See here and here for the reports about Rabbi Yehuda Levin and the Rabbinical Alliance of America.

Now not only is this a strange teaching. I must chastise these rabbis for not doing their Talmud homework and for not paying closer attention to the text in Yerushalmi Berakhot (9:2), which several years back I translated and published through the University of Chicago Press.

According to the Talmud text, earthquakes are caused by any one of a number of acts: yes one of them is gay sex, but others are by disputes, and also by not taking heave offering and tithes from your produce, and also because God is just upset that the Temple is in ruins and there are theaters and circuses in Israel.

Rabbis ought to know better than to cherry pick among the Talmudic reasons for earthquakes.

Mindful Meditation Makes You Three Times More Compassionate

Ever since I studied and practiced meditation in the early nineties, I knew the connection between meditation and compassion was the basic premise of the practice. Yet I did not expect that science would "prove" a causal link.

I wrote about mindfulness and the practice of reciting Jewish blessings and about the expressions of compassion in the Jewish grace after meals in my 2011 book, "God's Favorite Prayers."

I've also written about how the search for compassion defines the Yom Kippur services in the synagogue.

A truly remarkable article in 2013 in the Times explained that science demonstrated that mindful meditation makes a person more compassionate.

The essay described one breathtaking study - where the incredible conclusion was that mindful meditators are three times more compassionate than non-meditators.

Here is the article.
The Morality of Meditation
MEDITATION is fast becoming a fashionable tool for improving your mind. With mounting scientific evidence that the practice can enhance creativity, memory and scores on standardized intelligence tests, interest in its practical benefits is growing. A number of “mindfulness” training programs, like that developed by the engineer Chade-Meng Tan at Google, and conferences like Wisdom 2.0 for business and tech leaders, promise attendees insight into how meditation can be used to augment individual performance, leadership and productivity.


The Surprising Essences of Halakhah

Commonly Halakhah refers now to the body of Jewish law which governs the way of life of Orthodox Jews. They speak of the halakhah as if it was a unitary source of sacred guidance for what Jews ought to do or not do.

But it's not so simple.

I did some research a while ago into the use of the term in early rabbinic literature. I found that the term halakhah is not commonly used in the Mishnah, Tosefta, or the Tannaitic Midrashim as a primary theological category or as a main descriptor of an entire realm of content.

The word halakhah or its plural form appears 31 times in Mishnah, 105 times in Tosefta and in 59 instances in the early midrashic compilations: Sifra (20), Sifre Numbers (6), Sifre Deuteronomy (18), Mekhilta (10) and Mekhilta of R. Simeon Bar Yohai (5). There is one usage in the Dead Sea Scrolls. I based this on the concordance of the Academy for the Hebrew Language, microfilm version, searches conducted in 1995. Other search methods may provide different results.

By my reckoning there are at least 17 usages of the rabbinic term and concept halakhah in the early literature.  I list them below.

Note well: Only categories V, IX and XII suggest that the rabbis referred to a body of knowledge called halakhah. The other categories of usage do not support that idea.

Briefly the categories of the term are as follows.

Is David Letterman Jewish?

No, CBS Late Show host comedian David Letterman is not a Jew. On May 20, he will finish 33 years of performing on late night TV.

When he was young his mother, who is of German descent, worked as a church secretary for the Second Presbyterian Church of Indianapolis.

Letterman is not a particularly religious man. He was married in March 2009 in a civil courthouse ceremony in Choteau, Montana.

In August 2011, Letterman was threatened by Islamic extremists on a jihadist website for a joke that he made on his show. One frequent contributor to the website referred to him as a "lowly Jew." Letterman is not a Jew, and he is not lowly.

In June 2009, Sarah Palin was offended by Letterman's jokes about her visit to New York City. The ensuing feud helped raise Letterman's viewership numbers.

The Times reported that, "David Letterman said on his show in October 2009 that he had been the victim of an extortion attempt over charges of sexual affairs with staff members, claims that he conceded were true." [8/2011]

Previous Updates

There was one noteworthy Jewish related item in the scandal. Gawker reported that, "The scuttlebutt on the set had it that current assistant-in-question, Stephanie Birkitt, received extra compensation for duties as his First Assistant, in the form of Letterman picking up the tab for her graduate law studies at the Yeshiva University Law School."

Robert Halderman, the man who plead guilty to trying to extort $2 million from Letterman, as far as we can tell, is not Jewish.


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

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)