JMERICA Posts Rabbi Yonah

Thank you for the very special accolade, “Arguably the coolest campus rabbi ever.”
I am also a huge fan of what you are doing and look forward to staying connected.
Best wishes and Good Shabbos

Rabbi Yonah

Faith In Kashrut After PETA

I received the following letter from a student after PETA released a video of allegedly faulty kosher practices in Iowa. They have filed suit in state court to halt slaughter at the nations largest kosher slaughter facility.

Hi Rabbi,

I wish I had more time to talk to you about ‘happier’ things, but I just came across this [PETA video], and it is really bothering me, especially because part of the reason why I decided to stop eating unkosher meat was because of the strict slaughtering guidelines to ensure minimal suffering to the animal.

Thanks for your time, have a happy Chanukah, and I hope to see you next quarter, when I get back from Israel.


Dear ML
First of all, thank you for writing. It means a great deal to me that you feel comfortable enough to speak with me about these really important issues. Second of all, I hope we can meet (no pun intended) to speak ASAP in person.

I totally understand your shock and dismay, and I can only say to you a few things. I have gone out and done some research. But before we jump to terrible conclusions we have to look objectively at the information we have been provided. PETA is not a friend of animal slaughter. They believe humans we have no right to eat meat.

I have great faith in men of faith, although all men are fallible. This in no way should distract you from your goal of living a more ethical and Jewish life. Not all people are honest, but we must strive to be honest. Not all people are just, but we must strive to be just. I believe that the people at the OU, from my years of experience with them are hardworking, honest, and sincere, doing what they bee is best for the Jewish community and G-d. I have met and worked with OU Rabbis in Israel, Europe, and the United States, and they adhere to the very high standards. In addition, they are keenly aware that what they do affects the entire Jewish people.

Regarding any doubts about staying the kosher route—please know that keeping kosher is a key “ingredientâ€? to Jewish life. We are what we eat. It elevates our lives, and helps us to in a myriad of ways. But ultimately we do it because that is what G-d wants. The fact that so much kosher supervision happens and that there are not more problems attests to the fact that in 99.9 percent of the cases of kosher supervision, rabbis and shochetim and mashgichim are doing everything they can to ensure a supply of kosher meat.

I was a vegetarian for 13 years, and only five years ago started eating meat again. When I first heard of this “scandalâ€? I immediately jumped to the conclusion that maybe these PETA folks really scored a bomb, and uncovered a problem. However, upon immediate reflection I remembered that this is the organization that defended the use of the phrase “Holocaust on a Plateâ€? to describe eating meat. They made nationwide campaign with that slogan. When I wrote to them about this, I was shocked into silence. Scott Mackey of PETA replied:

“…while it is still taboo in the larger Jewish community to draw comparisons to the Holocaust, many Jews have responded to the lessons of history by reconsidering the propriety of eating meat, acknowledging that animals who are raised and killed for food are also victims of violence.

“The gruesome intensive confinement operations, or factory farms, where billions of animals languish in misery each year—are today’s concentrations camps.”

He went on to quote at length Isaac Bashavis Singer, who reportedly was a vegetarian. While Singer might have been a great writer, he was by no means a paradigm of ethics, as his recent biographers concluded. Yet, Mackey and PETA use Singer’s supposed vegetarianism as proof that good Jews should eat meat.

Their exploitation of the Holocaust for their goals is sickening. We can draw attention to improper treatment of animals in other ways. PETA couldn’t care less, and will do anything to get publicity for their cause. This includes dishonoring the memory of the victims of the Holocaust. Nothing is sacred accept their vision of the world. They worship their own twisted ideology.

In addition, PETA is a disingenuous organization using lies and half-truths to promote their cause. They believe that two wrongs make a right. Because they have demonstrated their willingness to lie, make false accusations, and are callous towards Jewish Holocaust victims, I personally believe that they have sinister agenda. Their lawsuit in Iowa court is a complaint that Kosher slaughter is not being done properly. And since kosher slaughter is only allowed by law when done correctly, Agriprocessors should be shut down until changes are made.

PETA circulated information to some unsuspecting Rabbis, here and in Israel, and misled them as to what was happening in the videos. They did not inform that they were making a public lawsuit against other Jews. They did not tell the Rabbis that their comments would be made public, AND did not divuldge the name of the plant or supervising agencies. These rabbis now know and have stated they were misled as to the entire plot.

Please continue to try to eat kosher, don’t let this scare from your amazing commitment. After the storm settles, no doubt, the duplicitous methods of PETA will be uncovered.

We only have the right to take an animal’s life for eating when we follow laws of schita. This is the most compassionate method known that can be applied. When done in the way as it appears on the video, it is being done in the best possible way, though it seems, it looks the worst. The more blood that comes out of the animal immediately, the better.

As I learn more from my colleague I will be certain to let you know.

Rabbi Yonah

Postscript. ML wrote me back by email that he was still eating kosher, but is avoid the Rbashkins meat for now.

What IS the Meaning of Chanukah?

“Chanukah is the festival of lights…â€? begins Adam Sandler in his now famous Chanukah Song and movie. The real story of Chanukah —spelled phonetically with a guttural “châ€?— could be a blockbuster on its own merits!

It all began when Antiochus IV, who ruled part of Alexander the Great’s fragmented empire, ordered Jews—under penalty of death—to abandon their religion. He appointed Hellenists as High Priest in Jerusalem, plundered the Temple treasury to pay his debts, and built a fortified Greek polis in Jerusalem. Faced with a choice of apostasy or rebellion, the Jews chose to rebel. The revolt achieved rapid success, led by the charismatic and brilliant Maccabee clan. At the end of the year 164 BCE the first Chanukah was celebrated and the Temple purified.

“What is Chanukah?â€? asks the Talmud. “…Eight days…during which eulogies are not made and fasting is not permitted.â€? The Greeks had defiled all of the Temple oil. Only one jar was left, sufficient to burn for one day. But a miracle occurred. The oil burned for eight days! Jewish sages declared these eight days for rejoicing and lighting of Chanukah lights at the entrance to each Jewish home to publicize the miracle.

To remember the oil of the original miracle, oil is used till today for lighting menorahs and cooking special holiday foods. Although the military victory over Greece was itself miraculous and celebrated, Jewish autonomy was short-lived. The Romans expelled or killed most of the Jewish nation by the year 70 AD, leaving only a small indigenous population. However Chanukah, celebrating freedom of religious belief and practice, remains a vibrant holiday centuries after the fall of Greece and Rome. The Festival of Light is truly joyous because it symbolizes the entire struggle for spiritual freedom, a light which pierced the darkness of tyranny and persecution.

As Jews and their friends light the Chanukah menorah this year, they will pray for the light of tolerance, religious freedom, and peace to spread across the world.

Who Is A Jew?

I was on a panel recently with a representatives of Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Judaism. In front of us sat 300 teenagers and their parents. We were to answer several fundamental questions. 1) What happened on Mt. Sinai? and 2) Who is a Jew? You can guess what everyone said about Sinai. “If the Jews were ever in the desert – not certain that is true – then they had some kind of mass transcendent experience which they must have thought was revelation. However revelation did not occur.” (I mused, maybe they had all drank psychedelic tea, but could not say that in front of the teens’ parents.) Next who is a Jew? I said, “Adam Sandler…Jewish. Madonna…not Jewish!” I sat down. Then I said in a more serious tone that “a Jew is anyone that has a Jewish neshama (soul).”

Some angry parents came up to me afterwards. “I thought you said you were an Orthodox Rabbi! How can you say this?”

I explained that his was the most fundamental answer to the question. It was not “How to become a Jew?” but “WHO” is a Jew right now.

One of the things I learned on this panel shocked me. The other participants naturally answered the question of “Who is a Jew?â€? by telling how they convert people, and that Reform _accept_ patrilineal descent. A person in the audience asked, “I know someone who was born Jewish, but was not raised Jewishly, but rather as a Christian. They grew up going to church, and even studied to be a priest. Are they Jewish and how can they become Jewish?â€? The Conservative Rabbi answered that they would have to undergo a conversion to Judaism, to see hat they had accepted Jewish beliefs. The Reform said that they would need to go to classes and have a conversion too. I answered that if this man were to show up in my synagogue I would give him an aliyah on the spot. He doesn’t need to do anything to BECOME Jewish, he is a Jew.

Pardon my naivite, but this was a major moment in my understanding where Reform and Conservative have gone wrong. If a Jew, born to Jewish parents, but raised as a gentile, needs conversion, then they have made Judaism into a something closer to another religion.

In Poland where I worked in the Jewish community for much of the 1990’s we had people in their 60’s who discovered when their parents were dying that they were not really their parents. On the deathbed the parents confessed that he/she was the child of Jewish neighbors. “We took you when you were only a few months old in order to save you until your Jewish parents could return. But they never came back…â€? The child grew up, married, had kids, all the while thinking they were a Catholic. Some of these kids, called Dzieci Holocaustu, Children of the Holocaust, became priests. They came to us wanting to learn about being Jewish. We helped them pick Jewish names, have bar/bat mitzvahs, learn Hebrew, etc. Some of them decided never to tell their spouses, out of fear. Some brave ones told decided to start observing Jewish tradition, stopped going to church….

Can you imagine, that a Reform Rabbi would tell them you are not Jewish? This person is as Jewish as I am. Their parents were burnt in Auschwitz. They didn’t even make a decision to leave the Jewish people. They are a “tinok she nishbarâ€? an abducted child. They have no guilt because they made no choice. And I will take this discussion about Jewishness to another level. Even if they HAD a choice as a young child or adult, and decided to hide their Jewishness, and stay undercover. THEY ARE STILL JEWISH. You cannot erase this. Because being Jewish is soul thing. It has to do with you and your connection to God and the entire Jewish people. You can go to your ashram, to your mosque, to the church, or a cult. And you are still a Jew.

For Reform and Conservative, being Jewish is a conscious decision that a person makes. It is a commitment. If you leave us, or never made the commitment, then you are not Jewish. This is part of the reason so many Jews decide to marry non-Jews, and live lives isolated from Jewish practice and tradition. ‘Because if being Jewish is just a commitment, and I never really made the commitment, I feel that I am not really a good Jew. I am somehow lacking in my Jewishness.’

That is why Reform have Commitment ceremonies. Who invented this? Why? Because reform as it originated in Germany wanted to make Judaism look like Christianity. Christians have confirmation, so Jews made one up. There are no historic models for this, it was copied. But this is a new definition of being Jewish. This is not the definition that has gotten us through 2000 years of exile, and 3800 years since Abraham.

Rabbis do not make Jews. Rabbis do not really convert people. Rabbis on a beit din are trying to establish, has this person taken on the yoke of Torah, the mitzvahs, does she see her fate and life inseparable from the Jewish world. She/he goes into the Waters of Life, the mikvah, and comes out with a Jewish soul. It is metaphysical friends. It is transcendent, and it is awesome, as in awe inspiring. It is not a commitment ceremony, it is a birthday.