Public Menorah Lightings: Yea or Nay?

The “Editor’s Note” (‘Your Say’, Dec. 19) is summarily contradicted by Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb’s “But by My Spirit” in the very same issue. This learned d’var Torah knows nothing of “various halachic decisors’” justification of public menorah lightings in violation of the Talmud.

Quite the contrary: The estimable O.U. luminary sharply contrasts the “garish, commercially motivated” Christian celebrations with the “relatively modest manner in which Judaism celebrates Chanukah.” Orthodox Judaism, Weinreb holds, is content to “let other religions celebrate their holidays as they wish: colorfully, dramatically and publically. By way of contrast, he stresses, that for authentic Judaism, “the mitzvah is … every person with his family.”

For Maccabees, Goal Was Power

In “Chanukah and the Holidays” (Dec. 19), Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Druk characterizes the message of Chanukah as “the victory of freedom over tyranny.” This is factually incorrect.

Commenting upon the common belief that Judah Maccabee was a crusader for freedom of religion, Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser points out that this “statement is true only if you add two words to the end of the sentence: ‘for himself.’ The Maccabees today would be regarded as religious zealots. As much as they fought a military war, they also fought a war for religious domination. To the Maccabees, ‘freedom of religion’ meant freedom to kill Jews who adopted Greek worship.”

Furthermore, according to the Union for Reform Judaism’s website, “The book of Maccabees says that the Israelites celebrated their triumph with garlands made of ivy — a Greek symbol of celebration that is identified with the god Dionysus. That says a lot. The Maccabees’ fight was not about assimilation, as the Maccabees themselves were assimilated; rather, their fight was about nationalism and power, not cultural identity.” Sad to say, the Chabad-Lubavitch understanding of the import of this festival, as presented by Rabbi Druk, amounts to little more than assimilation-driven truthiness.

Israel: Democracy Despite Its Faults

I think it’s ludicrous to spend time and money polling people on whether Israel should be a democracy or a theocracy. Surely, they’re not mutually exclusive. For those who are concerned that Israel will become “too Jewish,” fear not. One need only remember that Israel was founded by secular Jews and is home to an impressive majority who are secular.

Indeed, it is scary to think of any country, especially the Jewish state, becoming a dictatorship dominated by ayatollahs. The editorial “A Bad Bill for the Jewish State” (Nov. 28) that criticizes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s timing is certainly debatable, but one wonders if world critics do “show appropriate sensitivity to Jewish values.” Israel is a democracy, and just as America is fractious and less than perfect, so too is the tiny democracy situated in that awful neighborhood. I believe that if Israel is to lose its Jewish character, then those of us who sacrificed and sent our children to build the land will have done so in vain.


Bag (Ac)counting

Here’s a quick mental exercise: How many reusable bags do you own? Do they make it into the store with you on your various shopping excursions?

For many years, my family had a small supply of reusable bags that we had divided between our cars so that we would have them on hand when running errands. But in the past few years, the number of reusable bags we own has increased probably 10-fold.

Don’t get me wrong, I very much appreciate the various events and organizations that we support offering their goods and wears in reusable bags versus disposable ones. It demonstrates a growing consciousness about the wastefulness of disposable products and sends a subtle conservation message. But how effective are these reusable bags at curbing the use of disposable bags, and ultimately, the growing environmental impact?

Reducing the use of “single use” disposable bags is not a recent issue. It has come up in many jurisdictions across the region, including in the Maryland General Assembly. It surfaced again most recently as a “Bag Ban” passed by the Baltimore City Council but vetoed by the Mayor.

The impacts of plastic bags on local ecology are multifaceted: stream and river pollution, green house gas emissions, resource depletion and litter aesthetics. By some calculations, plastic bags make up almost half of local litter. The next time you walk outside, take a glance into the closest storm drains, culverts, streams, landscaping or vegetation. More likely than not, you’ll see plastic bags, a testament to the prolific — but unnecessary — use.

It is important to note that both paper and plastic single-use bags have severe environmental repercussions. In the United States, four out of five grocery bags used are plastic, which requires 12 billion barrels of oil each year to produce. However, paper bags require four times more energy to produce than plastic and generate 70 percent more air pollution and 50 percent more water pollution during production.

Both fees and bans have been used in hundreds of jurisdictions across the country with varying success, but all have resulted in a decreased consumption of disposable bags.

While it’s not law (yet) here, there are many ways that we can all pitch in to reduce the waste associated with disposable bags:

> Put reusable bags in your car and remember to bring them with you when you go shopping.

> Dispose of your plastic bags responsibly. I look for locales that offer on-site recycling.

> Not every purchased item needs a bag. I often refuse bagging for large items, especially if they have handles, such as gallon milk jugs or many bulk-packaged items.

If your stock of reusable bags is plentiful, offer to share. Establishing a reusable bag donation station in convenient areas can offer a solution for those who do not have reusable bags on hand. That’s one great way to (ac)count for our bags while creating healthier communities.

On Being a Member of the Tribe

I spend a great deal of time traveling as a scholar-in-residence, speaking primarily on the topic of sustainability as refracted through the prism of a Torah lifestyle. Venues typically include synagogues, Hillels and Chabad Houses, JCCs and various environmental conferences. Several years ago, I was asked to participate in the Tribal Lands Climate Conference sponsored by the National Wildlife Federation and held that year on the Cocopah Reservation on the outskirts of Yuma, Ariz.

There we were, 155 Native Americans, including tribal elders from a score of tribes and one bearded Orthodox rabbi. One by one the speakers approached the podium each greeting the audience in his or her native tongue. One elder lamented that his people were the People of the Salmon. Now that the Colorado River had been diverted, the salmon were disappearing and “once the salmon disappear, the People of the Salmon disappear.” Similarly, a tribal elder from Alaska added that his people were the People of the Bear. Now that the bears were disappearing, it spelled certain death for the bear people.

When it came my turn to speak, I greeted the crowd with a hearty “shalom aleichem.” I explained that in my world there were no coincidences — that this conference could have been held anywhere in the universe but instead it was being held in Yuma, which in my sacred tongue meant “judgment day.” I pointed out that 364 days a year, my people were people of the moon but on one day a year, Dec. 5 — that very day — we were considered the people of the sun, as we added a prayer for rain, based on a date calculated from the halachic autumnal equinox.

After my presentation, one of the elders presented me with a vial of what he called “living waters” from the pristine Navajo aquifer that his tribe, the Hopi, safeguards. The aquifer is reputed to be one of the purest water sources in the world. I explained that in our culture as well the waters were similarly designated as mayim chayim, “living waters.”

According to Chasidic tradition, the well of Miriam, which sustained the Israelites until her passing, courses through the veins of the earth and ascends every Saturday night through all water sources the world over — even running up and down the maple trees on our farm as sap. I then presented him with a bottle of maple syrup that we produced on our farm in Vermont.

On the flight home from Phoenix, I contemplated why Hashem had sent me to this remote corner of the earth to speak. What was I doing there? Was I sent to “give over” or to receive or perhaps both?

Several months later, I was invited to conduct a “maple tisch” at a Jewish food conference, where the sweetness of Torah, Chasidic stories, niggunim, and maple syrup flowed freely. I was sharing my experiences in Yuma and then touched upon my unsettledness, as of then still unresolved, as to why I had been sent.

I shut my eyes during a soulful melody and began to hear the words of the Native American elders in my head — “When the salmon disappear, the Salmon People disappear.”

Suddenly it became clear why I had been sent. I then told the conference audience: “So too we are the people of the Shabbos — the Shabbos People. When Shabbos disappears, the Shabbos People also disappear. We are the People of Kashrus. If kashrus disappears, then the Kosher People also disappear.”

North Korea’s Lump of Coal

Reactions have been mixed to the unfolding story regarding the hacking of Sony Pictures Entertainment, the reported threats that were made by the hackers and the company’s cancellation of the planned Christmas Day release of” The Interview,” a comedy centered on the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Did Sony react properly? Was the movie worthy of the hackers’ efforts? And is Seth Rogan really worth paying $40 million for a lead role in a slapstick comedy?

But the hacking was so massive and the threats from the hackers intimidating enough that the film began to be treated like a ticking time bomb. The hacking and its ramifications became a significant international issue. Those developments warrant a serious response, since the Sony breach points to the potential threat of cyber-warfare and to possible threats to power grids and other vital installations.

Last Friday, in a remarkably detailed and publicly circulated statement, the FBI accused North Korea of carrying out the cyber-attack. President Obama followed up by promising a “proportionate” response. And he also chided Sony for caving in to fear and for canceling the movie, calling it a “mistake.”

Sony acted to protect its bottom line. We understand that. As a for-profit enterprise, Sony’s responsibility to its shareholders overrides any political statement it might want to make. But in a world where one cartoon about the Prophet Muhammad or one comedy about assassinating the North Korean dictator can have international implications, the potential fallout from these kinds of events affects us all. So what is the answer?

In these times of rapidly advancing technological developments, the laws of cyber-warfare have not yet been written. But even if they were in place, there is no assurance that North Korea or Islamic militants would abide by them. The United States is pressing China to curtail Pyongyang’s cyber-reach. That sort of diplomatic effort, plus America’s ongoing cyber-development, may diminish such threats. But the only way the next Sony-type cyber-attack can be discouraged is if our “corporate citizens” refuse to buckle to these kinds of threats. Kudos to the president for encouraging corporate America to develop a backbone.

Welcome Home, Alan Gross

Alan Gross, pictured here with wife Judy, spent five years in  a Cuban prison before being released on Dec. 17.

Alan Gross, pictured here with wife Judy, spent five years in a Cuban prison before being released on Dec. 17.

It became clear last week that the release of USAID contractor Alan Gross from Cuban imprisonment was a piece of a complex international puzzle involving nothing less than the restoration of U.S.-Cuban relations after a break of more than a half-century. We now understand that Gross’ release was far more than what we were led to believe was a debate over whether he should be freed in exchange for three Cuban spies held by the United States.

The orchestration of events surrounding the Gross release were actions that only the U.S. administration could accomplish. We thank President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and other administrationofficials involved — not only for bringing Gross home to Potomac but also for engineering the long-overdue rapprochement with Cuba. One potentially positive effect of that new reality is that it could decriminalize bringing Internet equipment to the island’s Jewish community, the very USAID assignment that got Gross arrested in the first place.

It is now clear that the players in this dramatic story fall into one of two groups: one that had the power to free Gross and one that didn’t. This second group, including many members of Congress as well as the Jewish community, contributed to the cause by keeping his name and situation in the public eye, thereby creating a political context in which the Obama administration could press for his release.

As Gross’ representative in Congress, Democrat Chris Van Hollen, told Washington Jewish Week, “All the backroom negotiations were driven by the White House and Judy Gross’ lawyer. We’ve been involved over the years to urge the president to make this a priority, which he clearly did.”

We thank Van Hollen as well as Maryland’s senators, Democrats Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin, for their involvement. The Jewish community, particularly the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, deserves significant credit for keeping Gross’ story alive through vigils, visits and other public demonstrations of support. But make no mistake about it: The Jewish community did not “bring Alan home.” In fact, as events unfolded in this case, it became clear that the influence of the Jewish community was pretty modest, so much so that Jewish organizational leaders found out about Gross’ release the same way most of the rest of us did: listening to the radio on the way to work on that happy morning of Dec. 17.

Changing Times

Things are much different today (“United Stand,” Dec. 5). Police now have guns to protect themselves, and major crimes are worse than ever, as most offenders have guns. People who riot are idiots. If a black officer were to shoot and kill an unarmed white man, President Obama would never go on the news. Think about this.

City College’s Nobel Prize Connection

This is in response to the articles regarding the special anniversary of Baltimore City College and its well-known alumni (“Baltimore City College Celebrates 175 Years,” Oct. 10; “City College Made Me,” Oct. 31). I’m sure there are very few high schools in the country that can boast a Nobel Prize winner among their alumni. City can: Martin Rodbell (Class of 1942), who was awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine in 1994 along with Alfred G. Gilman. Sadly, Martin died on Dec. 7, 1998. I am very proud to be one of his many cousins and to have been his classmate at City.

No Doubt, Maryland Is a Southern State

Morris N. Saks (“Your Say,” Nov. 21 ) clearly is not a native Marylander and lacks a substantive knowledge of American history.

Roy Amadeus (“Your Say,” Nov. 14) is correct: Maryland is very much a Southern state. Saks seems to be unaware of the scurrilous reference to President Abraham Lincoln enshrined in our state song, “Maryland, My Maryland.” Nor is he cognizant of the robust KKK presence in Western Maryland. And if, as he suggests, “the Civil War ended 149 years ago,” how does he account for the exponential surge in death threats made against President Obama vis-à-vis those directed at his white predecessors in the Oval Office?

Not to mention the JT exposé (“Right-Wing Secessionist Wins Council Seat,” Nov. 14) of Michael Peroutka, whose rise to political power in Anne Arundel County gives the lie to Saks’ claim that “to equate us today with the South of the 1800s is an insult.”

Saks is correct in saying that “Maryland actually remained in the Union during the Civil War.” But that was only because there was no way the Union would have allowed a state north of the U.S. capital to break away, leaving Washington cut off from the rest of the Union. Indeed, on Sept. 17, 1861 pro-Confederate members of the General Assembly were arrested by federal troops to prevent any vote on secession.

In addition, were Saks to betake himself down to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, he would find an artillery emplacement at the top of Federal Hill — which is aimed toward downtown Baltimore: a warning to local rebel sympathizers that no trouble from them would be tolerated in any way, shape or form.