Thursday, April 26, 2012

Where the Debate on Modern Judaism Really Began

Here now is the third and final post from the Jewish Book Council's website, written by Rabbi Schwartz as a guest blogger there, in conjunction with the recent publication of his new book, the student edition of Judaism's Great Debates, with the adult edition due out next month.  Once more, we're pleased to be able to share these posts with you here on the official blog of Congregation Adas Emuno.

The mid-19th century in Germany is, to my mind, the most unappreciated period in Jewish history. The reason is simple: modern Judaism as we know it was born then and there. Do I exaggerate? I think not. Spinoza’s revolutionary thought in the mid-17th century certainly paved the way for new thinking (see Chapter VIII of my book). Mendelssohn’s attempts in the late 18th century to reconcile faith and reason lay the groundwork within the Jewish community. The early reforms of Israel Jacobson, along with the responses of the Parisian Sanhedrin to Napoleon in the first decade of the 19th century mark the irreversible first steps of putting theory into practice.

But modernity hits its stride in Judaism in the second decade of the 19th century. In 1817 the Hamburg Temple embraces reform of Judaism as its raison-d'être. In 1819 Leopold Zunz establishes the pioneering Society for the Culture and Science of Judaism, which advocates for the academic study of our sacred texts and religious heritage. The same year a leading traditionalist rabbi, Moses Sofer, castigates this approach in his broadside Eleh Divrei Habrit. The grounds for the great debate have been set.

The debate truly unfolds over a ten year period (1836-1846) between three giants of modern Judaism who were contemporaries, and actually knew and liked each other (until their disagreements drove them apart). Rabbi Abraham Geiger began arguing that Judaism has always evolved and should continue to change with the times. He called for radical shifts to meet the demands of modernity, including the critical study of Torah, the elimination of outdated prayers and customs, and the equal treatment of men and women. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, while acknowledging the need to engage in secular learning in the new age, contended that Judaism’s truths and law were eternal and not subject to evolution. Rabbi Zecharias Frankel, an advocate of “moderate reform” famously stormed out of an 1845 conference in Frankfort over the elimination of Hebrew from some of the liturgy.

Rabbis Geiger, Hirsch, and Frankel became known, respectfully, as the “fathers” of Reform, Orthodox, and Conservative Judaism. The spectrum of modern denominational Judaism was born in that time and place. Chapter IX of my book chronicles this remarkable debate. While the central locale of the debate would soon shift to America it was these three German Jewish leaders, through their sermons, books, and organizational activities who set the stage. Though hardly household names in the Jewish community today, we owe a debt of gratitude to their great debate. I once taught a course about them called “The Three Tenors of Modern Judaism.” Their magnificent voices created the opera we sing today.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The First Jewish Debate

This is the second of three posts written by Rabbi Schwartz when he recently served as guest blogger over on the Jewish Book Council's website, in conjunction with the recent publication of his new book, the student edition of Judaism's Great Debates, with the adult edition due out next month.  We're pleased to be able to share these posts with you here on the Adas Emuno congregational blog.

The first Jewish debate never ceases to amaze me. I am of course referring to the great debate between Abraham and God as recorded in Chapter 18 of Genesis. While Abraham’s epic story is remarkable, there is nothing in the prior (or subsequent) biblical narrative to indicate that the patriarch will challenge so boldly the God who commands his life so thoroughly. This is the quintessential man of faith, after all, who unquestioningly sets forth to a new land and submits even to the command to sacrifice his beloved son with nary a word of objection.

So when quite suddenly “Abraham came forward” (18:23) and dares God to morally justify the collective punishment of Sodom—well that is astonishing! “Will You sweep away the innocent with the guilty?” he pointedly asks in the same verse. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” he passionately exclaims two verses later. Abraham holds his ground as the debate goes back and forth concerning the minimum number of innocent people it would take to save the city.

The abrupt and apparently truncated conclusion to the debate (see 18:33) shifts the enigma of Abraham to the enigma of God. Does the Judge of all the earth in fact act justly? Do some innocent perish with the wicked? Were the wicked beyond repentance and mercy? Were the ordinary citizens of Sodom equally evil?

Who, then, won this debate? Certainly Abraham leaves quite a legacy. Abraham could easily have looked the other way. He could have idly stood by. Instead he decides to stand up to God no less, his guide and protector. In the words of Naomi Rosenblatt this story is about “the power of one man of integrity to be the conscience of the world.” In the words of Elie Wiesel “the Jew opts for Abraham—who questions—and for God—who is questioned… knowing that he may oppose God as long as he does so in defense of His creation.”

The Sages coined an expression for challenging God in the spirit of Abraham, “hutzpah k’lape shmayaboldness (even nerviness) toward heaven.” This legacy of “holy hutzpah” finds expression throughout Jewish literature, but especially in Eastern European Hasidic tales like Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s “Din Torah mit GotLawsuit with God,” and in another tale where he tells a simple tailor who challenged the Almighty in prayer, “Why did you let God off so easily? You might have forced God to save all of Israel!”

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

We Need More Jewish Debate, Not Less

Rabbi Schwartz recently served as guest blogger over on the Jewish Book Council's website, in conjunction with the recent publication of his new book, the student edition of Judaism's Great Debates, with the adult edition due out next month.  We're pleased to be able to share with you here on our congregational blog his three posts, beginning with this first one.

Some will tell you that we need less debate in the Jewish community; that for the sake of unity we need to stifle dissent and limit the amount we argue. I say that we need more debate, not less, and that we will emerge the stronger for it. But what we need is the right kind of debate….

My new book, Judaism’s Great Debates, posits that debate is not only desirable but is central to Judaism. Abraham, Moses, Ben Zakkai, Hillel, the Vilna Gaon, Geiger, Herzl…  heroes of every era of Jewish history are engaged in great debates. Moreover the Talmud is replete with debate; it is at the very core of rabbinic reasoning. Indeed it is the Talmud that coins a unique Jewish expression, makhloket l’shem shamayiman argument for the sake of heaven. The tractate Avot famously teaches: “Every debate that is for the sake of heaven will make a lasting contribution. Every debate that is not for the sake of heaven will not make a lasting contribution.” (5:20) Our sages understood that a debate for the right reasons enhances Judaism. A debate for the wrong reasons detracts from Judaism.

Perhaps the most famous debating pair in Jewish history was Hillel and Shammai (after Abraham and God that is). In actuality it was not these two sages but their disciples that did most of the arguing. A wonderful passage in tractate Eruvin states: “For three years there was a dispute between Beit Hillel and Bet Shammai, the former asserting, the law is in agreement with our views, and the latter contending, the law is in agreement with our views. Then a voice from heaven announced: eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim hayim, both are the words of the living God.” Deep respect is given to both schools because both sides are speaking the truth as they see it, and have the welfare of the community in mind.

Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that although in practice one viewpoint will usually prevail (the law went according to Beit Hillel almost every time), “both views will have permanent value because… [they] shed new light on the issue under debate, and will have contributed to the attainment of the proper understanding of the question discussed. They shall be remembered as… advancing the cause of the genuine knowledge of truth.” Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav went even further, calling debate a holy form of communication because it echoes the divine process of tzimtzum, making space for the creation of something new. Just as God enters into an act of self-limitation in order to make possible the created world, so worthy debaters restrain themselves in order to make room for opposing viewpoints. As Rabbi Or Rose comments, “When we disagree with one another, when we take sides, we create the necessary space for the emergence of new and unexpected ideas. Without makhloket… the horizon of human discovery would be severely limited.”

What your mother taught you is true: you can disagree without being disagreeable. A true debater must respectfully listen to the opposing viewpoint in order to articulate a response. A true debate is a conversation, not a yelling match. Would we only remember the next time we get into a Jewish debate that despite our differences we are actually on the same team, that because of our differences we will emerge more enlightened, that our arguments are for the sake of heaven, and that in the very act of debate we are echoing the divine!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Shira Lissek to Join Heritage Ensemble on Saturday

We told you all about Eugene Marlow's Heritage Ensemble in our last post, The Heritage Ensemble--You Won't Want to Miss This! About how their multicultural band will be performing original jazz compositions based on Hebraic melodies such as Adon Olam and Eliyahu Hanavi.

Well, as good as that's going to be, it's going to be even better, because the Heritage Ensemble will be joined by special guest vocalist, cantorial soloist Shira Lissek.

Here's a bit about her background, taken from her website,

Known for her “warm, engaging personality” on stage, Shira Lissek is a gifted operatic soprano and cantor. As a solo concert artist, Ms. Lissek draws from her eclectic musical influences to create concerts that span industry lines. To that end, Ms. Lissek pours her classically trained voice into Opera, Classical Art Song, Broadway, Jazz, Jewish Music, Israeli songs, world music, and pop. In the world of opera she has portrayed many Mozart and Puccini Heroines, including Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni (Seattle Opera), Mimi in La Boheme (Philadelphia Kimmel Center) “with a lovely, creamy legato”.  She performs in recital annually with Ravel Scholar Dr. Arbie Orenstein at the Le Frak music hall at Queens College. Lissek has also premiered new works by opera and Broadway composers. She originated the role of R in Center City Opera Theater’s production of The Always Present Present, and sang the New York Premier of Carlisle Floyd’s Opera, Markheim, with The Center for Contemporary Opera. Ms. Lissek is regularly featured by the composer-lyricist team of Craig Baldwin and Kathy Lombardi (BMI). Most recently she portrayed the lead characters in The Stepford Wives: The Musical and The Stronger.

A regular with the Gulf Coast Symphony she was featured in their pops concerts: A Barbara Streisand Tribute, An Evening of Irving Berlin, Broadway Blockbusters and Andrew Lloyd Webber Unmasked. With The Klezmer Company Orchestra, fusing Latin and Klezmer music, she was featured in Salsa Strings and Swing and Beyond the Tribe, and most recently with the Funky Monkeys (children’s pop and Jewish music) at the Jewish Museum in New York. Shira Lissek holds a Bachelor of Music from Indiana University and a Masters of Music from Manhattan School of Music. Trained by Cantors Leon Lissek, David Barash, and Paul Zim, she currently serves as the Cantor for Congregation Mount Sinai in Brooklyn Heights.

We are looking forward to a truly extraordinary evening of musical performance this weekend.  Once again, here's the basic information:

Saturday, April 21
7:30 PM
Admission: $25
Coffee and Dessert Bar
following the concert

Congregation Adas Emuno
254 Broad Avenue
Leonia, NJ 07605

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Heritage Ensemble--You Won't Want to Miss This!

Congregation Adas Emuno is proud to present an evening with…

Eugene Marlow’s Heritage Ensemble

Saturday, April 21 
7:30 PM

Admission: $25

Coffee and Dessert Bar
following the concert

The Heritage Ensemble is a contemporary world music quintet that records and performs Eugene Marlow’s original compositions and arrangements of Hebraic melodies in various jazz, Afro-Cuban, Brazilian, and neo-classical styles. In so doing, The Heritage Ensemble looks to build bridges in community among disparate cultures by presenting cultural connections through music.

The Heritage Ensemble is a reflection of the evolution of “world of music” in the 20th and early 21st century. The quintet’s musicians come from various cultural backgrounds. Multi-Grammy nominee drummer Bobby Sanabria and conguero Cristian Rivera are Nuyoricans: New Yorkers of Puerto Rican heritage. Saxophonist Michael Hashim is of Lebanese descent. Bassist Frank Wagner’s European background adds a certain old-world stability to the group’s performances. Dr. Eugene Marlow’s heritage is Russian, German, Polish, and British. He has earned degrees in classical and jazz composition.

The quintet has performed at many national and international venues, including the Baruch Performing Arts Center, Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, Dizzy Gillespie Auditorium, Hunter College, Nuyorican Poet’s Café, Saint Peter’s (at Citicorp Center), Society for the Advancement of Judaism, Symphony Space, Tavern On The Green (for the Dance Library of Israel), The Eldridge Street Synagogue, The Triad Theatre, and the West Side JASA.

Review for latest album…”A Fresh Take”
“…its mix of tradition and a more contemporary and freely-impro-vised approach points to a very interesting future, indeed. Marlow’s Heritage Ensemble continues on its intriguing, groove-laden and inspiring musical journey.” 
 Bruce Lindsay,

Live performances of the Heritage Ensemble draw rave reviews, and are consistently hailed as an amazing experience. We are fortunate indeed to have them share their exciting interpretations of Jewish music with us.  This is an event not to be missed!

Tickets will be available at the door, but seating is limited, so be sure to come early.

For more about Eugene Marlowe's Heritage Ensemble, go to

Congregation Adas Emuno
254 Broad Avenue
Leonia, NJ 07605

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Steven Chartoff's D'var Torah

Steven Chartoff was Bar Mitzvah on January 21, 2012, and we join together in saying Mazel Tov! to Steven and his family.  Here now is his D'var Torah:

I Have Chosen to write about the beginning of Exodus, when G-d was instructing Moses to take the Israelites from Egypt.  Moses told G-d that Pharaoh would not listen to him when he asked for freedom.   This was an important part of Jewish history. G-d told Aaron and Moses, “bring forth the Israelites from the land of Egypt, troop by troop.”  Moses said, “See, I get tongue-tied; how then shall Pharaoh heed me?”  G-d replied, “See, I place you in the role of G-d to Pharaoh, with your brother Aaron as your prophet.  You shall repeat all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall speak to Pharaoh to let the Israelites depart from this land.” 

G-d told Moses: “When Pharaoh speaks to you and says ‘produce your marvel’ you shall say to Aaron, ‘take your rod and cast it down before Pharaoh’.  It shall turn into a serpent.” Moses and Aaron did as the Eternal One commanded. After seeing this, the Pharaoh called his sorcerers and sages, and their rods turned into serpants also, but Aaron’s rod swallowed their rods.  And still, Pharaoh did not let the Israelites go.

If Moses and Aaron were not successful in getting the Pharaoh to agree, every Jew would probably still be a slave in Egypt.  As each plague came upon the Egyptians, the Pharaoh would seem to agree to let the Israelites leave Egypt, but then he kept changing his mind. Finally, after the 10 plagues came down upon all of Egypt, the Israelites were allowed to leave. 
Fortunately, I have not experienced anything like Pharaoh’s stubbornness. It is good that I didn’t, because I do not enjoy arguments. People who argue tend to get mad at each other. I do not enjoy anger or suspense. I usually try my best to get along with people.
For my Mitzvah Project, my two friends and I will play at a retirement home. We will do songs we did during marching band in the past few months. We also will do some jazz music that we performed last year. Most old people love music, the kind they used to listen to when they were younger.
For my Bar Mitzvah, I’d like to thank my parents for reminding me to practice. All of my teachers and classmates from the last 4 years, Cantor Luke for teaching me the verses, and Rabbi Schwartz for helping me with this speech.
When I was in 3rd grade, I started going to Hebrew school here. I honestly did not like it. There are still moments today when I don’t want to be there, mostly because I want to sleep. Sometimes I still rest my head on my books and close my eyes, but still pay attention. Eventually I’ll go to college, have a home, and probably teach younger family members about Judaism and how it’s important to us, from generation to generation. Next year I believe with an 80% chance I'll go to confirmation class. Shabbat Shalom!

And thank you, Steven, for sharing your D'Var Torah here, as a guest blogger!  We certainly hope to see and hear more from you in the future!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Intermarriage: The Debate Goes On

from the pages of Kadima, the newsletter of Congregation Adas Emuno:

From the desk of …                    
 Rabbi Barry Schwartz

Intermarriage: The Debate Goes On

Every Shabbat morning a group of members of Adas Emuno gather for Torah study, and for the last year we have been making our way through the entirety of the Hebrew Bible (called in Hebrew the Tanakh). A few weeks ago we started reading the Book of Ezra, only to discover that when this esteemed religious leader returned to rebuild the Temple after its destruction by the Babylonians, he encountered rampant intermarriage and inveighed passionately against it.

The debate over intermarriage in Judaism is more than two thousand years old, and showing no signs of letting up. Today there is hardly an American Jewish family that is not touched by it in some way. The latest brouhaha erupted this past December when the UJA-Federation of New York released a report calling for a major new initiative to welcome interfaith families into the Jewish community. A prominent professor from the Jewish Theological Seminary blasted the endeavor in the pages of the New York Jewish Week with a piece entitled “New Outreach to Intermarrieds Makes Wrong Assumptions.”

Professor Jack Wertheimer challenged the underlying premise of the report that large numbers of intermarried families remain aloof from Jewish life because they do not feel welcome. He argues instead that the “staggeringly high” rate of non-affiliation among interfaith families is due to their own choice. He pointedly cites the Federation’s own finding that only 18% of intermarried families in the NY area “feel it is very important to be part of a Jewish community” as compared to 95% of the in-married. And, sadly, we know from the most startling statistic of the National Jewish Population Study of 1990 (the last comprehensive survey) that only 28%, barely one in four children of intermarriage, are being raised as Jews.

In light of these harsh realities Wertheimer was apoplectic that the chairman of the Federation task force asserted that “we are not endorsing interfaith marriage or condemning it.” He calls such “stunning non-judgmentalism” a “devastating commentary” on our times. Echoing Ezra more than two millennia ago (and large segments of the traditional community today), Wertheimer terms intermarriage “bad for the Jewish people and for the perpetuation of Judaism.”

While acknowledging that there are real cases of unambiguous commitment by interfaith families, he insists that we realize that they are the exception to the rule. Wertheimer concludes that we must continue to vigorously oppose intermarriage because it runs counter to our religious and communal imperative to perpetuate Jewish life.

For now I will withhold my own differing view in the interest of stimulating more discussion.  Do you agree with Wertheimer or do you have a different view? What should be the proper response by the American Jewish community to intermarriage and to interfaith families? How do we acknowledge reality while preserving community?

I invite you to contribute to the discussion by posting a comment here on our congregational blog, or by emailing me at  RabbiSchwartz at

The debate on how to respond to intermarriage, which continues to hover near 50% of marriages involving American Jews, is too important to ignore.  Yet even as we engage in this persistent and perplexing issue, let us remember that intermarriage is not just a theoretical question. It is a family issue, a personal subject. We embrace a significant number of interfaith families right here in our congregation, and if your extended family is like mine, dear ones much the same. Our response is bound to involve the head and the heart…  and so it should.

Monday, April 9, 2012

A Zissen Pesach

On behalf of Congregation Adas Emuno, we wish you a Zissen Pesach, a sweet Passover, and we celebrate with the following amazing video from Attraction Black Light Theatre:

This was a special performance for Pesach held at Cancun last year.  This video, and several others, can be found on the Attraction Black Light Theatre channel on YouTube.  And you can read more about  talented Hungarian performance group on their website:  attr.action.  And I think we can expect to hear, and see more from this them in the future! Maybe even next year, in Jerusalem?