Friday, December 29, 2006

Is Cloned Meat Kosher?

Being Jewishly-observant often gives me a rather odd view of the news. For example, when I first heard about Fry-O-Diesel, a Philadelphia-based company that is trying to perfect the process of converting waste grease to clean-burning fuel, my first thought was, "is this 'kosher'?" After all, this Philly-based company would surely be making their fuel from the greasy Philly favorite, the cheesesteak, and Jewish law forbids us from deriving any benefit from a milk-meat combination!

The same sort of odd thoughts went through my mind when I heard about the FDA's recent conclusion about cloned meat: It may be safe, but is it kosher?

I haven't been able to find any answers to that question yet. In the Orthodox community, most of the discussion about cloning to date has dealt with cloning humans: cloning for reproductive purposes, and cloning for medical purposes (e.g., for stem cell research and treatment). You may be surprised to hear that the Orthodox rabbinate for the most part supports stem-cell research, within some limitations.

It surprised me a bit that I couldn't find any serious discussion of the kashrut of clones, given that the highly-publicized first mammal cloned from an adult cell was Dolly the sheep, and sheep are kosher. That was followed two years later, by the cloning of cows in 1998. In 2000, pigs were cloned -- definitely not kosher!

I suspect that the kosher status of clones will not be a problem. It appears that Orthodoxy has already generally accepted the kashrut of genetically-modified foods, which is a much more dicey issue of Jewish law: it is essentially hybridization, which is against Jewish law, and it often involves splicing the genes of non-kosher animals into kosher plants, in addition to the unnatural production aspect that it shares in common with cloning. The consensus about GMOs seems to be that, although the process of creating them may be a violation of Jewish law, once they are created the means of their creation does not affect their kosher status, and the genetic material used is broken down to the point that it is too small to count.


FDA decision

Jewish Opinions on Cloning Generally
Please note: even though several of these titles use the word "kosher," they are speaking of meeting the requirements of Jewish law generally, not about Jewish dietary laws specifically; they mostly talk about cloning for reproductive or medical purposes

Jewish Opinions on Stem Cell Research

Jewish Opinions on Genetically-Modified Organisms (GMOs)

Sunday, December 24, 2006

"Secular" Christmas

I was contacted recently by a reporter from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review for an article about the "secularization" of Christmas. We hear this a lot at this time of year: that Christmas has become a secular holiday because its most popular observances -- decorations, presents, etc. -- are not inherently religious. But this notion, that secular observances make a holiday secular, is completely contrary to the Jewish way of thinking about holidays and their traditions. From a Jewish perspective, doing secular things for a religious holiday makes the secular things religious; it does not make the religious holiday secular.

In Judaism, many of our holidays are observed with traditions that are quite mundane and secular in nature. What, after all, is so very religious about eating fried food, gambling for chocolate coins and lighting candles, as we do on Chanukkah? Or playing hide-and-seek with a piece of matzah, as we do on Passover? Or camping out in a booth on your patio, as we do on Sukkot? Or getting drunk and having a carnival, as we do on Purim? Or eating three large meals, as we do every Shabbat? But from a Jewish perspective, any activity we perform as part of the celebration of a holiday is understood to be a religious activity, regardless of whether that activity could be done at another time in a secular context. There's nothing inherently religious about eating latkes (fried potato pancakes). If we eat them because it's Chanukkah, then it's a religious activity; if we eat them during Passover because they are unleavened, then it's a religious activity; if we eat them on an ordinary day because they're a tasty treat, that's not a religious activity.

What about something as simple as decorating for the holiday? Isn't that a secular activity? In Jewish tradition, we would refer to decorationg as "chiddur mitzvah," beautifying the commandment. We see it as an act of great religious significance when we expend significant amounts of time and money to make a holiday or other observance more beautiful, more enjoyable. When I decorate my sukkah for Sukkot, hanging pictures on the walls and decorative gourds from the roof, that is a religious activity in Judaism.

There is really no question that all of the "secular" activities that go on at this time of year are being done because it is Christmas. People put up a Christmas tree and decorations and lights because it is Christmas, not just because it's pretty. They buy presents because it is Christmas, not just because it’s a nice thing to do. They eat candy canes because it is Christmas, not just because they taste good. They listen to Jingle Bells and Frosty the Snowman because it's Christmas, not just because they're catchy tunes. They extol the virtues of Peace on Earth and Good Will Towards Men because it's Christmas, not just because it's a good idea. And whether they focus on this aspect or not, and whether this aspect is important to them or not, they know that Christmas commemorates Jesus’ birth.

From the Jewish understanding of religious activity, these secular customs do not make Christmas secular; Christmas makes these secular customs religious. I think on a gut level, a lot of Jews feel that, though they may not be able to explain that feeling. That is why many Jews feel so alienated at Christmas, and so outraged when Christians try to pressure us to observe Christmas customs.

Monday, December 18, 2006

The Importance of Chanukkah

In December 1984, I was a junior in college and an officer of our campus Hillel (a Jewish student organization). The people who ran the College Center came to us with a question: they were getting ready to put up the Christmas tree in the College Center, and wanted to know if they should put up the Chanukkah menorah with it. In the past, they had always put both up at the same time. But in December 1984, Chanukkah was late, starting after classes ended for the semester, so they wondered whether the menorah should be up at all when the holiday was not occurring.

The Hillel board discussed the question and it was generally agreed: Chanukkah is not Jewish Christmas, it's not a major holiday, it's not a big decorating holiday, and we should not decorate for it when it's not even occurring. We took what we thought was an important stand, and told them not to put up the menorah.

The next night, as I was walking through the College Center, I saw the Christmas tree ... right across the atrium from the Chanukkah menorah! Our Hillel president, Gary, happened to be there at the time, so I asked him what was going on. Didn't we decide that we didn't want them to put up the menorah?

Gary looked rather embarassed. He explained that he had been talking to our friend Carla earlier in the day. Carla is Jewish and was a regular at our Hillel brunches and dinners, but she was not religious. She told Gary how she felt about seeing the Christmas tree without the menorah, how alone and cold and left out it made her feel. He immediately went to the College Center and told them, on behalf of Hillel, that we had changed our minds and we wanted the menorah up.

I think about that story a lot at this time of year, whenever I hear people comment on the fact that Chanukkah is not an important holiday. Indeed, I say the same thing on my site, and from a religious perspective, it's true: Chanukkah is not very important religiously. It's not in our Bible; it doesn't have any non-working festival days; the only commandment is lighting candles, which can be done at somewhat flexible times.

But for many Jews in America, Chanukkah is the only Jewish holiday they know, the only one their families celebrated together. And yes, they probably celebrated it with elaborate presents each day for eight days, and with blue and white lights, and with "Happy Chanukkah" decorations, and maybe they even celebrated it with a "Chanukkah bush." But they also lit candles and played dreidel and ate latkes, and they called what they were doing "Chanukkah," not "Christmas." At a time of year when there is enormous social pressure to conform to the Christmas norm, they stood up and said, "I am Jewish; I don't celebrate Christmas, I celebrate Chanukkah." And the importance of that should never be understated.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

War on Chanukkah Update

The holiday situation at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport has been resolved. Christians can now sleep soundly, knowing that their Christmas trees are safe and back on display at Sea-Tac airport. Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky assured Port officials that he would not file a lawsuit to force them to allow a menorah display. The rabbi said, as he has many times since this began, that it was never his desire to have the trees removed; that he wanted to "add light to the holiday, not diminish any light."

Chabad's menorah, however, will not be displayed this year. And there has been a predictable antisemitic backlash. The Anti-Defamation League reports that the rabbi received hundreds of hate mail messages related to this situation. Many synagogues and other Jewish organizations completely unrelated to this situation, organizations outside of the Seattle area and unaffiliated with Chabad, have also received disturbing messages, and are considering the need for security during Chanukkah celebrations.

FYI: The news stories about the resolution of the situation give some more detail about how the misunderstanding arose. A member of Chabad who is a construction consultant for the airport approached a Port staffer in October or November, as the Christmas displays were going up. However, he was given the runaround for several weeks, through many people who told him different things about whether a menorah would be allowed. The law is clear, however, and the rabbi's attorney sent Port officials a legal memorandum laying out what the law has to say in these cases. This may well have been the first time that the proper levels of the Port heard about Chabad's request. Legal experts agree that the Port could have allowed the menorah along with its Christmas trees in such a way that it would not have been an endorsement of religion, and that would have been the end of it. But the Port officials panicked and took down the trees instead.

News links (please note: the linked articles, like any news items, may be removed at any time):

Monday, December 11, 2006

The War on Chanukkah

At this time of year, we frequently hear about a supposed "War on Christmas," the odd idea that it is somehow offensive to wish people a "Happy Holiday" or "Seasons Greetings" instead of "Merry Christmas." But I'd like to talk to you about the War on Chanukkah, about an airport that was so strongly opposed to displaying a menorah in the midst of their plethora of Christmas decorations that they chose to take down their 15 Christmas trees rather than allow a menorah.

In October, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport was approached by Chabad Lubavitch, a Chasidic Jewish organization known for its outreach. Chabad wanted to put up a menorah -- at their expense -- in the airport, as they do in many locations around the world. The menorah would stand side-by-side with one of the 15 Christmas trees already displayed at the airport. However, instead of meeting the offer with enthusiasm as many cities and facilities around the country do, airport officials dragged their feet on the request.

With Chanukkah rapidly approaching -- it starts at sunset on Friday December 15 -- and no response from airport officials, Chabad put some pressure on. They told the airport that they would consider a lawsuit if the airport did not allow the to put up their menorah. There is certainly a basis for a claim of discrimination: this public facility (not a private business) puts up the decorations of one religious holiday with their own money, but does not allow a decoration of another religious holiday at the same time.

The airport's response? They took down all 15 of their Christmas trees and blamed the Jews. The President of the Port of Seattle Comission said, "It was either, 'put up the menorah,' or they would go to federal court and sue us 18 hours later. They wouldn't wait."

Wait? Wait for what? For Christmas? Christmas decorations are already up; Chanukkah starts Friday; what were they waiting for? What did they expect Chabad to wait for?

And who do you think is going to get the blame for this mess? The airport officials, who would rather take down Christmas trees than display a menorah, or Chabad, who simply wanted to spread a little Chanukkah cheer at their own expense? I'm seeing a disturbing -- but not surprising -- amount of message board chatter blaming Chabad. Many of the messages seem to think that Chabad demanded that the trees come down, which was never a part of the Chabad agenda.

News links (please note: the linked articles, like any news items, may be removed at any time):

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Jews on a Plane

A year ago, I posted an amusing story about a colleague of mine who, because of post-9/11 anxieties, was suspicious of an Orthodox Jewish man praying on a train (see Sometimes a Box Is Just a Box). The conductor knew what the man was doing and explained to my colleague that he was just praying. Trauma over.

Unfortunately, the attendants on Air Canada planes aren't so well informed, nor so skilled at handling the situation. On September 1, 2006, Air Canada's representatives removed an Orthodox Jewish man from a plane because his behavior when he was praying allegedly disturbed other passengers. As is common practice in Orthodox Jewish prayer, the passenger was shuckling -- swaying back and forth, possibly at a rapid speed. This behavior allegedly made "more than one" passenger nervous, though a passenger sitting near the man said that "The action didn't seem to bother anyone." The flight attendant tried to reassure passengers by telling them that "he wasn't a Muslim." When the flight crew were unable to communicate with the passenger in French or English, they removed him from the plane.

I don't know where to begin with what's wrong with this. How could a man be thrown off a plane for an action as simple as shaking back and forth? How a flight attendant could conclude that a person was safe simply because he didn't look like a Muslim? Or assume that he would not be safe if he was a Muslim? And how could she announce such a thing to the passengers? If they had simply explained to the complaining passengers that the man was praying, as the train conductor in my colleague's situation did, the plane could have been on its way with no disruption to anyone. Instead, the flight was delayed for all, and the praying Jew had to explain himself to authorities and catch a later flight -- a serious inconvenience for an Orthodox Jew on a Friday!

We truly live in a frightening world when we have to remove people from a plane for engaging in harmless, albeit strange and unfamiliar, behavior. The Jewish community of Montreal has offered to provide sensitivity training to Air Canada's staff so they will know what is going on in the future and will know how to handle it.

But I would like to correct a misconception I've seen in some of the blog entries about this: the passenger's prayer was probably not related to fear of flying, and probably was not a prayer related to the flight (though a generic prayer for safe travel was likely included). Orthodox Jews pray three times a day, every day, and this may simply have been the most convenient time to do it. Many Orthodox Jews pray on planes or trains or in other public places.

News links (please note: the linked articles, like any news items, may be removed at any time):

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

"Our Territories"

I told myself that I wasn't going to talk about the situation in Israel and Lebanon, but I can't ignore the interesting comments by Syria's ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha. He has said more or less the same thing on several news shows, but none of the interviewers have followed up with the questions that come to my mind. You can see an example in a transcript of his recent appearance on PBS. Mr. Moustapha says:

We are talking about half a century of occupation, of humiliation, of

A half a century... hmn... that would be 1956. Israel didn't occupy anything anywhere near that time. So one has to wonder: when Mr. Moustapha speaks about a half century of occupation, is he talking about the taking of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights (1967)? Or is he talking about the creation of the state of Israel itself (1948) as the "mother of our evils that should come to an end"?

Perhaps some light can be shed in his next sentence:

Israel is a country that continuously occupies our territories, including the
Syrian Golan, the Shaba Farms in Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories...

The use of the word "including" is interesting. It implies that the following list is not exhaustive, that there may be other "occupied territories" that aren't included in the list. What other "occupied territories" do you suppose Mr. Moustapha thinks there are? The state of Israel itself? After all, Mr. Moustapha is a representative of Syria, which does not recognize Israel's existence nor even its right to exist. But Mr. Moustapha is not a native speaker of English, so perhaps this is not what he meant.

It is also interesting that Mr. Moustapha uses the phrase "our territories," implying a commonality of interest between Syria, Lebanon (which claims Shaba Farms) and the Palestinian Authority. Many Americans and Europeans think of the Israel situation as a conflict between big powerful bully Israel and little weak Palestine, with Israel backed by the might of the United States. But Mr. Moustapha's remarks imply what Israel's supporters have said all along: that the Palestinian authority may be weak on its own, but it is part of the larger Arab community that is heavily armed and that can pressure the West with its control of a large percentage of the world's petroleum supply.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Thoughts on Purim and the Hidden Deity

Purim, which occurred two weeks ago, is one of my favorite Jewish holidays. It's a lot of fun. I look forward to the process of making hamentaschen (Purim cookies) all year, and my co-workers look forward to the process of eating them!

But the most interesting part of Purim for me is the hidden way that the Divine is presented in the story of Purim. In the Passover story, we see a very manifest Deity, imposing plagues and the parting of the Sea. That's very dramatic, but it's not the way we're used to relating to the Deity in our own lives. In the Purim story, the Divine is hidden; His Name not even mentioned; His desired results come about through the actions of people. But the story makes no mistake that this was His desired result, that if Queen Esther does not bring it about then someone else will.

I was thinking about this yesterday, while I was stuck in a traffic backup on my way to work. I was thinking about the way that hidden Hand seems to have been working in my life recently. Here is my story, which happens to have reached a critical point on Purim:

Here in the mid-Atlantic states, you may think we have four seasons (Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall), but actually we have only two seasons: Winter and Construction. Construction season started in February, with a building renovation near my office that is blocking one lane of the road. The construction site is so poorly marked that the heavy morning traffic can never quite determine whether they are supposed to shift to the right (as the signs indicate) merge into one lane (as the road markings seem to indicate), a very dangerous situation. Complicating the process is the fact that people routinely park in what should be the shifted right lane. I fought my way through it for a few days before I had a minor accident (just a scratched bumper) to tell me that I needed to find another route to work! I experimented with a few alternative routes before I found the best one: a route that took me past an Conservative synagogue a few blocks from my office.

But construction season was not finished adding to my long commute! Shortly after I settled on my new route, one of the highways through Wilmington was narrowed to one lane for construction, spilling extra traffic onto the highway I take and slowing my long commute (I live more than 30 miles from my office, but it's almost entirely highway). No way around it this time.

As Purim approached, the DOT then announced another upcoming construction project on my normal route to work, one that was expected to add 15-30 minutes to my commute. Frustrating: if I leave early enough to beat that traffic, I'll get to work an hour early; if I leave much later, I'll never get to work on time. What to do?

I was struggling with this dilemma when a co-worker invited me to come to his synagogue on Purim for lunch and open-mike joke-telling. What a great idea! We walked to his synagogue, the same one that I passed every morning on my new route to work. We sat with the synagogue's education director, who told me about the synagogue's morning minyan (daily prayer service). I was surprised to hear that they had one, because most of the Conservative synagogues I'm familiar with don't. He admitted that they have trouble achieving a minyan (the minimum 10 people required for certain parts of the service, notably the formal Torah reading and the Mourner's Kaddish prayer), but their goal for the year is to achieve a minyan 80% of the time. He encouraged me to come.

It was a perfect solution to my commute dilemma: Services run from 7:30AM to 8:15AM, perfect timing for me to get to work a few blocks away by my starting time of 8:30AM. To get to services by 7:30AM, I would have to leave home about 15-30 minutes earlier than usual, which is what I would have to do anyway to deal with the construction delays.

The Purim lunch was on a Tuesday, and I planned to attend my morning minyan there on Wednesday, but somehow I wasn't able to get myself together in time. No problem; I would go on Thursday.

I went to services on Thursday; they didn't achieve a minyan in time for the Torah reading, but we had exactly 10 (including me) in time for Mourner's Kaddish. When I was there on Thursday, I learned that the synagogue's Wednesday services are held at another location. If I had made it on time on Wednesday, there would have been no one there, and I might not have come back.

The Wednesday minyans don't work out for me, because they are later and farther from my office. I would not be able to get to work on time if I went there. But I have made it to every non-Wednesday service since then. There are no traffic delays at the time I leave to make services. The combination of lower traffic and the spiritual benefits of the service mean that I arrive at my office in a better mood, ready to do a good day's work.

As I was stuck in traffic yesterday morning (a Wednesday), I found myself musing on the series of events that brought me to this minyan. The construction that diverted my path past the synagogue, the additional construction that encouraged me to leave early enough to go to services, the invitation to a Purim lunch, sitting with a man who was plugging the services, and unintentionally failing to make it to the synagogue on the day the service wasn't there.

All perfectly ordinary occurrences, nothing special about any of them. And yet, if any one of these pieces had not fallen into place, I might never have found myself at this synagogue's morning services. Twice in the last two weeks, there have been exactly 10 people at the service; there would have been no minyan if I had not been there. I can't help but see a higher Hand in all of this.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Divine Wrath and Earl

Recently, Pat Robertson took some heat for saying that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stroke was Divine punishment for dividing the land of Israel. (He has since backpedaled from this statement, because hey, business is business). Muslims have also suggested that the stroke was a sign of Divine wrath: Allah's punishment for all the things Sharon has done for the past 50 years or so. Apparently, Allah has a substantial backlog.

I believe that this stroke is a sure sign of the Creator's punishment ... against elderly, obese men who take on one of the most stressful jobs on the world. Let's be realistic about this: Sharon is 77 years old. He himself said that he couldn't wear a bullet-proof vest because "they don't make them in my size." And the fact that he has to consider wearing a bullet-proof vest, at risk from both his own people's hardliners as well as from his country's many enemies, should give you some idea of how stressful his job is! Indeed, it could be considered miraculous that a man in his circumstances lived as long as he did without suffering a stroke. Could it be a sign of Divine approval? Perhaps the Creator sustained him this long so he could make the remarkable sacrifice of the communities in the Gaza Strip in the name of peace? And perhaps the creator struck him down when He did to spare Sharon having to see the overwhelmingly electoral victory of a party dedicated to expelling Sharon's people from the land where he was born?

But Robertson isn't the only one playing the Divine Wrath card these days. And it's not just for fundamentalists any more: New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said that Hurricane Katrina and the other hurricanes this year were Divine punishment for the war in Iraq. A variety of conservative commentators, on the other hand, say Katrina was Divine punishment for the country's immorality (abortion, homosexuality, Terry Schiavo, take your pick). Me? I think it was Divine punishment for living 10 feet below sea level without adequate levees.

Back in 2003, the Divine wrath card was restricted to religious fundamentalists, which probably explains why no one saw Divine wrath in one of its more obvious manifestations: the lightning bolt that struck actor Jim Cazviel and assistant director Jan Michelini during the filming of The Passion of the Christ. This is, of course, Divine punishment for standing in the middle of an open field on a hill in the middle of a lightning storm and holding up, or being affixed to, the nearest equivalent of a lightning rod.

And then there's Jerry Falwell, citing 9/11 as Divine wrath against homosexuals. The litany of stupidity that the Creator could have been punishing on 9/11 could fill an entire book. In fact, it did fill an entire book: it's called the Report of the 9/11 Commission. Let's just take my favorite example: punishment for the government failing to act on reports that foreigners were paying cash to learn how to fly a commercial airliner, but didn't want to know how to land it. I don't think the Creator approves much of that level of stupidity.

But those who have read the biblical book of Job know that Divine rewards and punishments aren't as easily discerned as some would like to believe. In the book of Job, a man suffers numerous personal setbacks, not because of anything he has done wrong, but only to see if he will maintain his faith when the Creator doesn't give him everything he wants. His friends and neighbors are quick to judge him, quick to conclude that his setbacks are a sign of Divine disfavor, but they are all wrong.

But why are rewards and punishments not obvious? Wouldn't the world be a better place if good deeds were always promptly and appropriately rewarded, while bad deeds were equally punished?

The traditional Jewish answer to this dilemma is free will: if the Creator smacked you down every time you did something wrong, you wouldn't have much choice in the matter, would you?

Consider the one of my favorite TV shows, My Name Is Earl. For those who haven't seen it: Earl is a petty criminal who learns about a simplified version of karma (a Hindu/Buddhist concept): if you do good things, then good things will happen to you; if you do bad things, it will come back to haunt you. He sets out to make right every wrong he has ever done, not because he wants to do good, but because his life is miserable and he thinks this will make it better. And in Earl's world, the rewards and punishments are very clear: he wins a $100,000 lottery that he doesn't deserve, and he promptly gets hit by a car and loses the lottery ticket. He cleans up a parking lot to make up for his past wrong of being a litterbug, and while cleaning he finds that $100,000 ticket.

It's very entertaining, but it is quite clear that Earl has no free will. His choices do not arise from his own moral center, from his own sense of right and wrong. Rather his choices are compelled by his awareness of immediate reward and punishment. He chooses not to steal because he knows that he will get no benefit from what he steals.

Traditional Judaism teaches that this is not what the Creator wants from us. He wants us to behave in a certain way not because of desire for reward or fear of punishment, but because it is the right thing to do.