Archive for the ‘Hasidism’ category

A Jewish Perspective on the Ethics of End of Life Decision Making

April 29, 2013

My congregation – Temple Emanuel of Davenport, Iowa – has started hosting a series of panel discussions on contemporary ethical issues.  For these panels we bring in local experts on varying aspects of the issue.  After introducing the topics and the “players,” each program starts off with me offering a 10 minute presentation on the topic from a Jewish perspective.  This year we experiments with two such programs; one on the Ethical Challenges Facing the Media and the other on the Ethical Challenges Facing End of Life Decision Making.  While my presentation of the Jewish perspective on the topic of media ethics was made from an outline (and therefore far exceeded my 10 minute limit), for time and efficiency sake, I decided to prepare my presentation for end of life decision making in a full text format.  It is that text which I share with you now.  However, before I do so, let me offer a few disclaimers:  1) This presentation is far from exhaustive on the topic, nor could it be considering the presentation’s time limit of 10 minute.  2) For research sources, I relied heavily on responsa literature coming out of the Reform movement.  While a more evenhanded approach would have been to pull from responsa across the Jewish spectrum, being a Reform rabbi primarily speaking to a Reform congregation, I felt, and feel, completely justified in restricting my sources to those coming out of Reform Judaism.  3) As an adjunct professor at a local university, I try to be sensitive to issues of plagerism, however I am not always certain of some of the fine lines which define it.  I have tried to give appropriate credit to my sources in my footnotes.  If I have an any point crossed that line into the universe of plagerism, I apologize in advance for it was never my intention to “steal” intellectual property from another.

Several years ago one of our congregants suddenly collapsed and was rushed to the emergency room.  She had several arterial blockages which the doctors tried their best to clear.  However the damage was so extensive that there was considerable loss of oxygen to the brain.  So she was placed in intensive care and put on a respirator.  She never regained consciousness and it was not long before it was clear to the doctors that she never would.  At best, her brain activity was minimal.  So her loving family was faced with the very difficult and painful decision as whether or not to artificially keep her alive by means of the respirator although there was infinitesimal, if any, hope of her ever recovering, or remove her from the respirator and place her life into the hands of God.

So the family sought my advise, as their rabbi.  I told them that they needed to choose what they thought would be best for their loved one and for themselves, and that whatever that decision would be, Judaism would support it.  So they decided to take her off the respirator.

After they had made that decision, but before they had actually taken the action, they were visited by the local Chabad rabbi.  When they told him their intentions, he was emphatic in expressing his opposition, claiming that in the eyes of the Jewish religion, what they were proposing to do would be nothing short of murder.

Two rabbis and two dramatically different opinions on a very personal and difficult subject.  Which one of us was right?  Actually, both of us could make that claim.  For when you look at the traditional literature on such difficult end of life questions, you can find argumentation in both directions.  You see, we think of these questions as being relatively contemporary but in Judaism rabbis have been debating these issues for centuries, indeed for almost two millennia; as far back as the MISHNAH, which was put in its final form approximately 1,800 years ago.

Before we can look at where we disagree, we need to spend some time looking at our areas of agreement.

Firstly, there is unanimous agreement among the rabbis that life is more than just a biological function.  Rather it is a gift from God.  As such, it must be viewed as sacred and therefore must be treated with great care.[1]  Needless to say, Judaism fundamentally rejects murder – the taking of a life.  This is as old as the Torah itself.  It is one of the Ten Commandments.

The rabbis later extended the Torah’s definition of murder to include suicide.  The Talmud makes this point very clear when it tells the story of Rabbi Chananiah ben Teradion, a second century rabbi who was part of the Bar Kochba rebellion against Rome.  The Romans captured him and condemned him to be burned at the stake.  His loving students urged him to breathe in the flames so that he could die more quickly.  He refused, giving the reply, “It is best that He Who hath given the soul should also take it away; let no man hasten his own death.”[2]

Yet another point of mutual agreement is the prohibition against the practice of euthanasia or assisted suicide – taking positive steps to advance death regardless of whether or not the individual is terminally ill.[3]  There is uniformity among the rabbis that this is but another form of murder, even if the “victim” is a willing participant, choosing to terminate their own existence.

There is also agreement that while taking positive actions to advance death is prohibited, that there is a clear distinction between such positive actions and indirect actions, primarily using negative means, in order to remove barriers which might hinder a natural death.[4]  So, for example, the rabbis agree that it is acceptable to stop praying for the recovery of someone who is terminally ill.  While we today may think of that as a minor matter, for the rabbis it was not, for they fully believed that prayers make a real difference.  In fact the Talmud relates a powerful story to this effect.  Rabbi Judah HaNasi – the redactor of the Mishnah – was dying with great suffering.  Yet the other rabbis insisted upon standing at his window, offering continual prayers for his life.  Finally, in empathy for her master, Rabbi Judah’s servant woman climbed onto the roof and dropped a clay jug right over where the rabbis were gathered.  The crashing of the jug on the ground startled the rabbis, interrupting their prayers.  No sooner did they stop praying then Rabbi Judah was released from his suffering and died.[5]

It is on this point of making a distinction between positive actions that advance death and those actions which serve to remove the barriers to natural death that the rabbis part company.  They do so over the very difficult question of boundaries.  When does one’s actions cross over from actively terminating a life to removing that which artificially prolongs life and interferes with a natural death?  This can plainly be seen in a debate across time between two famous commentators, Moses Isserles (1520-1572) and the Taz, David HaLevi Segal (1586-1667).  Isserles held that it was permissible to remove salt from the tongue of a terminally ill patient on the grounds that it was a stimulant which was preventing him from relaxing into death.  The Taz challenged Isserles’ position, claiming that the removal of the salt was an overt act which hastened death.[6]

It was on this question of boundaries – when do we cross over from actively terminating a life to removing an impediment to death – that the Chabad rabbi and I disagreed in the situation that I described in the beginning of these remarks.  To reference the debate between Moses Isserles and the Taz, I stood on the side of Isserles while he stood on the side of the Taz.  So as you can see, their debate continues today as we find ourselves struggling in our search for ethical answers for these end of life decision.

Not only will it continue, but it will grow in intensity and complexity as medical technology continues to advance our ability to prolong the length of life but not to the same degree, the quality of life.  As a rabbi, I visit the sick and the shut in of our community on a regular basis.  Among those I visit are those who are suffering from horrible diseases such as Alzheimers, which methodically strips them of their intelligence, their personality, their ability to communicate, until they reach a point when their body is here but all that made them who they were as human beings is no longer with us.  I leave those visits deeply depressed for I miss the people who inhabited those bodies and I deeply dread the very real possibility that such would be my ultimate fate as well.  And I cannot help but ask myself the fundamental question: When does life end?  When the body no longer functions or when the individual who populates that body no longer exists and for whom there is no hope of return?  Tough and frightening questions present themselves to us today and will continue, and multiply, in the coming years.  We will need to struggle with the ethics of our responses.


[1]Euthanasia, American Reform Responsa, Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1950.

[2] Ibid.  Tractate Avoda Zara 18a, Babylonia Talmud.

[3] Euthanasia, American Reform Responsa, Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1980.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ketubot 104a, Babylonian Talmud; Allowing a Terminal Patient to Die, American Reform Responsa, Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1969.

[6] Allowing a Terminally Ill Patient to Die, American Reform Responsa, Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1969.

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A Pebble in the Ocean

May 9, 2012

What do the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Israel, Australia, Indonesia, Taiwan, Brazil, the Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Bulgaria, Papua New Guinea, Chile, Kenya, & India have in common?  They are just some of the 31 nations in which my internet blog has been read.  No.  I am not bragging – well maybe just a little.  Indeed, I was as surprised as you are, and maybe more so, when I checked the statistics of my blog only to discover that at least some of what I have written here in Iowa has been read in as many as 31 nations; in many places that I never in my wildest dreams believed that my thoughts and words would ever reach.  But there it was, staring me in the face, with both a list of the various countries  and a color coded map of the world showing that far more of the surface of this planet have been touched by my writing than remains untouched.

Quite some time ago, New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman wrote a book about “globalization.”  He told the reader that we have to come to grips with the fact that our world is truly shrinking; that we on Planet Earth are far more interconnected then we choose to assume.  He was right on target!  The international coverage received by my blog is but one small testimony to that truth.  But you may be further surprised to learn that what Thomas Friedman was espousing in modern times was anticipated by a Hasidic rabbi in the 19th century.  In TALES OF THE HASIDIM, Martin Buber shares some of the teachings of Rabbi Avraham Yaakov of Sadagora, who died in 1883.  Rabbi Avraham said:  “Everything can teach us something, and not only what God has created.  What man has made also has something to teach us… One Hasd asked dubiously, ‘What can we learn from a telephone?’  What we say here is heard there.”  From the statistics, it would seem that the readership of my blog testifies to the truth of Rabbi Avraham’s, and Thomas Friedman’s, teachings.  What is said here is heard there.

The point is that what each and every one of us say and do can, and indeed does, have an international impact.  We can, and do, make a difference in this world.  All too often we think of ourselves as small and insignificant when it comes to changing the world around us.  But in truth we are like the pebble that is dropped into the ocean.  Being so dropped, the pebble does create ripples which travel outward and ultimately  result in changing the very face of the entire ocean; whose impact is felt as far away as a foreign shore.  Like the pebble, our words and our deeds travel outward, and continue to travel, traversing great distances and touching countless people; people whose names and faces are completely unknown to us.  When we think we do not matter, we are merely selling ourselves short, for we do matter.  We matter greatly.

Recently, the students of my Jewish community’s joint religious school packaged meals for a program called Kids Against Hunger.  In the course of one Sunday morning, they packed the equivalent of 2,880 meals.  When you consider that the ideal goal is that every human being should consume 3 meals a day, every day, then doing the math, we discover that to feed one person adequately for one year, we need to provide 1,095 meals.  In the course of a morning, our small religious school provided almost enough food to feed one person for two years or two people for one year.  The representative of the Kids Against Hunger program informed our students that this program recently reached the 1 million meal mark.  In other words, they have created enough meals to feed over 913 people for a year.  This program has made a difference.  Our children, in the course of 90 minutes on one Sunday morning have made a difference.

Each and every one of us can make a real difference in this world.  Whether or not we do so is purely up to us.  Each and every one of us must come to recognize that it is within our power to change the world for the better, and then proceed to choose to work to bring such change into our world.

The Prayer of Breath, the Breath of Prayer

February 26, 2012

There are many reasons why people come to Shabbat services.  Some come to remember loved ones who have passed away.  Some come to take the opportunity to actively affirm their Jewish identity.  Some come because they find Shabbat worship to be a meaningful way to start a weekend of leisure.  Some come to connect with Jewish friends or with the Jewish community as a whole.  Perhaps some come because they have nothing better to do on a Friday evening.  There are many reasons why people come to Shabbat services, but I suspect – indeed, I hope – that perhaps the most common reason is that in one way or another they wish to try to establish some sort of connection with God.  At the least, they may view the very act of leaving their home on a Friday evening and making the physical effort to come to the synagogue for prayer as a means of showing God that they care.

To me, the saddest aspect of contemporary American Jewish life is that in most synagogues, like my own synagogue, many of the seats of our sanctuaries remain empty Shabbat after Shabbat after Shabbat.  For the empty seats serve as a painful testimony to the fact that most of our people rarely or no longer feel the desire or need to connect with God.  They are Jewish.  They probably believe in God.  But they have little interest in pursuing an active relationship with God, particularly through prayer and worship.

But be that as it may, we cannot force people to want to connect with God; to want to engage God in their lives through prayer.  We can only try our best to provide them with the opportunities and the inspiration to do so.  The rest is up to them.  As the old adage says, “You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink.”

However, as for the people who do choose to come to Shabbat worship, to stretch that analogy a little further, they are the horses who have chosen to drink; to drink from the wells of spiritual refreshment and Divine connection which Shabbat worship can offer.  It is precisely to these people that every synagogue has a responsibility; the responsibility to assist them – to work with them – in the search to find ways to make their prayers a more effective vehicle for connecting with God.

This past December, I traveled to Washington, D.C. in order to attend the biennial convention of the Union for Reform Judaism.  While at that convention, I had many wonderful and meaningful experiences.  Among them was a workshop entitled “Making Prayer Real.” It is upon that workshop which I wish to reflect.

First off, I have to tell you that I found the title of that workshop to be odd.  “Making Prayer Real” implies that our prayers are not real, and I do not believe that to be the case.  I believe that the prayers of any person who takes the effort to come to synagogue on Shabbat are real.  They may not be as effective as they could be, but they definitely are real.

That aside, I found the workshop  – particularly one aspect of the workshop – to be enlightening.  It was some­what meditative, but it was more than mere meditation.  I say “mere meditation” because I believe that while meditation techniques can assist us in prayer, they cannot replace prayer, especially in a Jewish setting.  For Jewish prayer is predominantly, though not exclusively, communal, while meditation is almost exclu­sively, if not exclusively, personal.  While there is a place for meditation in Jewish prayer, the greatest power of Jewish prayer is to be found in what we do together as a community of worshipers.

But back to the workshop.  At this workshop, one of the presenters – Cantor Ellen Dreskin, with whom I used to serve on faculty at the NFTY National Camp in Warwick, New York – conducted an exercise involving God’s name and breath.  As most, if not all of you know, we Jews are not permitted to pro­nounce the actual name of God.  It is a four-letter name composed of the letters Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey, and when we see it in the texts, we say “Adonai” in its stead.

Yet there are many Hebrew words and names that incorporate elements of this name in order to include some sort of connection with God.  So, for example, the Hebrew name for Elijah is “Eliyahu.”  “Yahu” comes from that four-letter name of God, and the name “Eliyahu” means “Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey is my God.”  There is also a very well known Hebrew word which also includes an element of God’s four-letter name.  That word is “Halleluyah” with “Yah” being the God part.  The word means “Let us praise Yah; Let us praise Adonai.

Yet when you consider “Yah” it is a sound that is made up of nothing but breath – “Yah.”  So Cantor Dreskin had us do an exercise.  She asked us to take a deep breath and hold it.  Hold it as long as we could.  And when we finally let it out, we were to let it out with a “Yah.”  Dear reader, try that now then do it again.  “Yah” – God – is breath, and without the eventual “Yah” – without God – we cannot continue to breathe.  When you think about it, God is present in our every breath.  Every time we exhale, God is there.  For as long as we breathe, God is an integral part of our every moment, both waking and sleeping.

Then she turned our attention to that word: “Halelu-yah – Let us praise Yah.”  So we took a deep breath and held it, and then let it out saying “Halelu-yah.”  Dear reader, try that then do it again: “Halelu-yah.”  With our breath, we are praising God.  Our every breath should praise God, for without God, we would have no breath.

There is probably nowhere in Jewish texts in which this is better expressed than in Psalm 150, which is included in the Shabbat morning worship service.  For in verse 6 of that psalm it says, “Kol haneshama t’haleil Yah, halelu-Yah! – Every breath praises Yah, so let us praise Yah!”  Of course Cantor Dreskin had us sing this verse, but if you cannot sing it, then at least say it:  “Kol haneshama – t’haleil Yah, – halelu-Yah!”

This is not just a prayer nor is it just a meditative technique.  What it is, is a life perspective; an important spiritual life perspective.  For if we want to truly connect with God, we have to honestly come to the realization that God is just not present to us in the sanctuary, but is present to us every day, every hour, every minute of our lives, with every breath we take.  God is our constant companion, and every breath – every moment of life – is yet another gift from God; a gift for which we should be grateful.  It is only when we begin to view God in this way that we can begin to start to pry open those gates which seem to keep us from God and God from us.  The Hasidic master, the Kotzker Rebbe, once said, “Where is God?  Wherever you let God in!”  When we begin to recognize God’s presence in our every breath – that our every breath is a prayer – then we will have begun to let God into our lives.

So if our every breath is a prayer, why come to the synagogue?  Why come to services?  I once heard a dear friend and colleague of mine, Rabbi Stephen Pinsky, give a sermon about prayer.  It was back in my New York days.  In that sermon he said, “People ask me, ‘Why do I have to come to the synagogue to pray?  I can pray in the middle of Central Park.’  To this I respond, ‘If you find yourself in the middle of Central Park then you better pray!’” His point was telling.  People say that they can pray anywhere but the fact of the matter is that unless the situation is such that it evokes prayer, they rarely if ever pray.  The Shabbat worship service offers us the opportunity to set aside some time for the act of praying; for actively reaching out to God, and opening ourselves up to receive a God who is reaching out to us.

It is not unlike our love for our dear ones.  We know we love them.  We feel our love for them con­stantly, but we don’t always express it.  We don’t always marry word and deed to intention.  We don’t always say to them, “I love you,” nor do we always demonstrate through our deeds the love we hold for them.  Yet there are times like birthdays, anniversaries, Valentine’s Day, which provide us with the opportunities to express in word and deed that which is always in our hearts.  So it is with Shabbat and worship.  It offers us the opportunity to open our hearts and express to God that which is always there, and perhaps even open our souls and receive God’s reciprocating touch.

Sensing God in our every breath – praising God with our every breath – and praying to God on Shabbat are by no means alternatives but rather they exist in a symbiotic relationship.  Our constant experiencing of God in our lives fuels and vitalizes our prayers.  It makes them meaningful.  It endows them with wings with which to fly to Heaven.  And as for our prayers, they give voice – a clear and beautiful voice – to the connection we feel to God with our every breath.  They enable us to announce to the world, and most importantly to God, those profound feelings we carry in our hearts.  For in the end, prayer is not just a matter of reading words out of a book but rather attaching those words to that which is in our hearts, so that together they can rise to Heaven and draw Heaven to us.

Should Sholom Rubashkin Receive a Get Out Of Jail Free Card?

February 5, 2010

The following article appeared on Jweekly.com:

Rabbis call for Rubashkin’s release

Thursday, February 4, 2010

A coalition of rabbis has called for the pre-sentencing release of convicted kosher meat executive Rabbi Sholom Rubashkin.

The coalition of seven Orthodox rabbis, including representatives of the National Council of Young Israel and Agudath Israel of America, issued the call in Washington on behalf of Rubashkin, the former manager of the Agriprocessors kosher meat plant in Postville, Iowa. The rabbis also delivered a signed letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder seeking reconsideration of the case.

Rubashkin was convicted in November on 86 counts of financial fraud and is being held in detention in Iowa pending sentencing. His bail request was denied.

Absent from the coalition was the Orthodox Union, whose kosher supervisory arm certified Agriprocessors. OU officials said that they were asked to participate but, while they support the effort, have decided to pursue the matter quietly. — jta

What is wrong with this picture?

Sholom Rubashkin is a convicted felon.  He still awaits trial for an incredible number of violations of the child labor laws – the child labor laws for God’s sake!

So you have to wonder:  On what grounds are these rabbis demanding his release?  Is it because he is Jewish?  Is it because he is an Orthodox Jew?  Is it because he is a rabbi?  It is because for so many years he supplied the kashrut observing American Jewish community with the lion’s share of its kosher meat supply?  Is it because the Rubashkin family has a history of making major donations to Orthodox – read Lubavitch Hasidic – causes?

As a Jew, and especially as a rabbi, I am outraged by the implication here that this group of rabbis somehow or other feels that they and their ilk are above the laws of the United States of America.  It was painful enough to watch these rabbis and and others stand up and protect this man when all the evidence against him which came to light after that massive ICE raid on his Postville, Iowa plant provided hideous testimony as to how abusive he was to all who worked for him and how grossly he disregarded the laws of the land.  It was painful enough to have such abuses attached to those who supposedly promote Jewish ritual observance.  But enough already!  The man has been found guilty of crimes!  The man will most likely be found guilty of more crimes – heinous crimes; crimes involving the abuse of children for the sake of profit.  Do not smear the image of the Jewish community even further by continuing to insist that we Jews – and especially that those who are particularly ritually observant Jews – are above the law and should not be subject to just punishment for their crimes.

Sholom Rubashkin has done more than enough to tarnish the image of Jews in our contemporary society.  We most certainly do not need the efforts of this group of rabbis to make a bad situation that much worse.

Chabad in the Quad Cities

January 9, 2010






Since 2004, the Jewish community of the Quad Cities has been attempting to deal with the introduction and activities of Chabad in our town.  Unfortunately, the coming of Chabad has generated far more controversy than stimulation in our Jewish lives.  Recently, our local Jewish Federation was thrown into a crisis over this issue.  On Erev Shabbat, January 8, 2010, I delivered a sermon addressing this matter.  I wish to share with my readers an EXTENDED version of this sermon.

UPDATE ON CHABAD AND THE JEWISH FEDERATION

Yesterday, the Board of the Quad Cities Jewish Federation received an email from our Executive Director, Allan Ross, stating that the Federation had just averted a crisis concerning Chabad.  I do not exaggerate when I say that the crisis in question had a very real potential to tear apart the Federation and perhaps even destroy it.

However, before I share with you the nature of that crisis and how it was averted, or at least averted for the moment, I need to take you on a journey; a journey down the road to this crisis.  For before I can share the crisis itself, I need to share the history which led up to it.

But even before I can do that, I need to rectify an important misconception about myself.  In our community, we have had a lot of controversy surrounding Chabad, and admittedly I have been, and will continue to be, a key player in those struggles.  However, there are those who believe that I am simply anti-Chabad; that it is part of my essential nature as a Reform Jew and a Reform rabbi to oppose them.  That is the misconception that I wish to clear up.  While it is true that at this point in time I have significant issues with Chabad, it was not always so.  Indeed, there was a time when I was a friend to Chabad.

Back in the 70’s, as a rabbinic student intern in a large New York suburban congregation, I used to take my Confirmation classes – classes of over 60 students – to Crown Heights, Brooklyn in order to spend a weekend – to spend Shabbat – with the Lubavitcher Hasidim.  Indeed I met and prayed with Menahem Mendel Schneerson, the last Lubavitcher rebbe.

While serving as a rabbi here in the Quad Cities, there was a time when I definitely was Chabad friendly.  There was a time when I invited Chabad representatives from Postville to come into our synagogue and conduct family education programs.  They conducted a program on the baking of matzah and another on the making of a shofar.  Then there was the time when I invited them to do a program on the making of Torah scrolls.  They cancelled on me twice, with the last cancellation coming less than an hour before the scheduled event.  Yes, I was angry.  Those of you who know me well can imagine just how angry I was.  But still, I did not hold it against Chabad in general.  I attributed this problem to the fact that the Chabad rabbi in question was simply a jerk.

When University of Iowa journalism professor Stephen Bloom published his best selling book, POSTVILLE, I reviewed that book from this very bimah.  Some of you might even remember hearing that review.  I panned the book.  I criticized the author for engaging in excessive exaggeration.  I accused him promoting harmful stereotypes; stereotypes both of Hasidic Jews and of Iowans.  I stated that if the images he drew of the Hasidic Jews of Postville were anywhere nearly as inaccurate as the images he drew of Iowans in general, then what he wrote at least bordered on bigotry, if it did not actually cross that line.  But I now admit that I was wrong.  If I were to review that book today, it would be substantially different.

The point is that I did not start off being an opponent of Chabad.  However over the years, the circumstances, and particularly the circumstances in our own community, have been such that I have become one.

While I am certainly troubled by some of the more global issues concerning Chabad, I will not focus on them tonight.  There is no question but that they do contribute to my attitudes on this subject.  I am deeply disturbed by that major segment of Chabad that professes that the late Lubavitcher Rebbe was the Messiah and that he will return.  I truly believe that such a profession carries them outside the realm of Judaism and into a faith all their own, like Christianity, which of course holds similar views about the person of Jesus.

As you all know, the legal and ethical abuses perpetrated by the Chabad owners and managers of the Agriprocessors Kosher Meat processing plant in Postville offend me to the very core.  Their actions were completely contrary to everything I understand about how our Judaism instructs us to live our lives.  I am proud that I was the one who authored the resolution of the Central Conference of American Rabbis which addresses the issue of adhering to Jewish ethical standards as well as ritual standards in the preparation of kosher food.

But I will not dwell on those global topics now. Rather I wish to dedicate the remainder of my remarks to the activities of Chabad within our local community and why those activities have led to a crisis which threatened to undo our Federation.

Our journey began in the Fall of 2004.  It was a Monday, my day off, when I received a phone call from our Federation’s Executive Director.  He had a visitor in his office; a representative of Chabad.  This man had come to the Quad Cities to “explore” the possibility of creating a Chabad presence in our community.  He wanted to meet with me.  I told him that while I could not meet with him on that day, I would be happy to do so on the next.  However, since he was only here for a day, we wound up meeting on the phone.

It was during that phone conversation that I witnessed a the very first hint of the problems that would quickly arise between our two local synagogues and Chabad.  The Chabad representative told me, as he told others, that it was the intention of Chabad to work in cooperation with the local synagogues.  They would not be replicating the services provided by the synagogues nor would they be recruiting from among the synagogue members.  He said that Chabad possessed a list of over 2,000 names of unaffiliated Jews living in our small Jewish  community.  This, and this only, would be their target population.  Of course, every local Jew with whom he spoke – myself included – told him that he was sorely mistaken.  While there are unaffiliated Jews in our community, the numbers are not anywhere near what Chabad projected.   Indeed, the total number of Jews in our community – unaffiliated and affiliated together – were not anywhere near what Chabad projected.   Still he persisted in insisting that these numbers were accurate.  So I pressed him on Chabad’s commitment not to recruit from current synagogue members.

I spoke to him of the Jewish legal principle of Hasagat G’vul, the respecting of organizational boundaries.  This is a principle which governs inter-congregational relations in most, if not all, Jewish communities around the world.  Simply put, local congregations agree not to recruit from those who are members of other local congregations and rabbis agree not to provide rabbinic services for other rabbis’ congregants or take actions which would undermine the relationships between other rabbis and their congregants.  Unaffiliated Jews, of course, are fair game for everyone.  But when it comes to affiliated Jews, it is strictly hands off.  It is in this way that local congregations are able to establish and maintain cooperative and hopefully harmonious relations, for it is important to have confidence that when congregations work together they are not unwittingly providing opportunities for one congregation to prey on the membership of others.  Such a predatory environment would be toxic to the well being of any Jewish community.

It was his response to my pushing this issue which sent up red flags.  Of course, he assured me that Chabad would not be doing this.  But then he went on to say that he did not understand why I was so concerned.  After all, if Chabad was going to be drawing members away from any congregation in our community, it would be from the Tri City Jewish Center, the traditional congregation, and not from my Reform congregation.  After all, Chabad’s form of Judaism would be more attractive to traditional Jews than to Reform Jews.  So why was I worried.  Indeed, in many communities, Chabad enjoys a wonderful partnership with Reform congregations and Reform rabbis.  It was as if he was giving me a wink and nod, implying that we could be partners in the dismantling of the Tri City Jewish Center, and it would be to the benefit of both of our organizations.  Suffice it to say that he did not evoke from me the reaction he obviously anticipated.  I would have no part in such a conspiracy.

It would be a few months before Chabad would actively pursue their plans of establishing a presence in our community.  In December they held their first community informational meeting.  They held it at the Blackhawk Hotel.  Just as I had feared, it was not their list of unaffiliated Jews who received phone calls, inviting them to attend, but rather affiliated Jews from both congregations.  They held their second meeting on Tuesday, January 11, 2005 – five years ago this coming Monday – and I attended.  There were no unaffiliated Jews there.  All, with the exception of myself, were members of the Tri City Jewish Center.  Once again, in my conversation with the Chabad rabbi that evening, I pressed for adherence to the principle of Hasagat G’vul; respecting institutional boundaries.  This time I was told that this principle does not apply to them for they are not “in the same business” as the local synagogues.

In March of that year, leaders from our two congregations and the Federation held the first of several formal meeting with Chabad leadership, in order to work out our differences.  That particular meeting was with Rabbi Yossie Jacobson, the chief Chabad rabbi of Iowa.  We told Rabbi Jacobson that of course we understood and respected the fact that this is a free country and, as such, Chabad most certainly was free to set up shop wherever it choses.  However, if Chabad was going to come to our community, we wanted the Chabad organization to respect the same rules of the road as are followed by our other local Jewish organizations including the halachic principle of Hasagat G’vul.

At first, Rabbi Jacobson said that the principle of Hasagat G’vul should not apply to Chabad because Chabad is not a synagogue.  Since it is not a synagogue, it cannot be considered in the same category as the local congregations nor could it be held to the same standards of behavior.  I pointed out that, like a synagogue, Chabad was intending to offer worship, study, and communal activities.  Therefore, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, you have to treat it as if it is a duck.  As odd a duck as Chabad might be, for the well being of our community, it still must abide by inter-synagogue rules.  When Rabbi Jacobson did come around to stating that he was not adverse to abiding by such principles, it was pointed out to him that these principles were already being violated, in that the Chabad rabbi from Iowa City was providing Bar Mitzvah training to a child whose family belonged to the Tri City Jewish Center.  While Rabbi Jacobson stated that he would investigate the matter and put an end to such violations, when all was said and done, he took absolutely no action.

When Rabbi Shneur Cadaner, our local Chabad rabbi, arrived in our community, matters did not get better.  In fact they got worse.  Soon after his arrival, Rabbi Cadaner would say one thing to Rabbi Michael Samuel (of the Tri City Jewish Center)  and another thing to me.  Only when Rabbi Samuel and I talked did we begin to realize that we were getting mixed messages.  We tried to resolve these differences by asking Rabbi Cadaner to meet with the two of us together.  However, Rabbi Cadaner insisted that he would not meet with us together, but only alone.  He claimed that he did not want us to “gang up on him.”  When one of my congregants made a similar request of him – that he sit down with the rabbis of the two synagogues and work out our differences – he responded by saying “I don’t believe in organized crime.”

It was not long before Rabbi Cadaner started approaching Jews who belonged to one congregation or the other.  He would visit them in the hospital.  He would visit them in their homes.  He would visit them at their work places.  Now many people would say, “What’s wrong with that?”  Let me explain.  There are valid reasons why rabbinic professional ethics forbids rabbis from performing pastoral services for the congregants of other rabbis.  Those reasons involve both the the possibility of congregants receiving conflicting pastoral counseling as well as the unfair psychological impact of such visits.

The dangers of conflicting pastoral counseling are very real and very serious.  My own experience with with the Chabad rabbi in such a situation serves as an excellent example.  One of my congregants was a wonderful woman who did much for our congregation and our community, and was beloved by all.  Unfortunately, one morning she collapsed.  She was rushed to the hospital where it was determined that she had major arterial blockages.  While the doctors did their best to clear them, her brain was deprived of oxygen for too long and she was basically brain dead.  So she lay as a vegetable in the Intensive Care Unit, with her loving family and friends continually by her side.  When it was clear that her situation was hopeless, her family decided to accede to her stated wishes and remove her from life support.  Enter the Chabad rabbi.  He proceeded to tell her youngest son that Judaism considers it a sin to remove her life support; that the family needs to seriously reconsider its decision.  This was in direct contradiction to the supportive counseling which they had received from me; counsel which had a strong foundation in our sacred texts.  Fortunately, the family was strong willed and determined enough to set aside the Chabad rabbi’s counsel.  Yet strong willed or not, who in that situation needs to be subjected to that type of doubt and guilt?  When, later that day, I learned of what this Chabad rabbi had done, I felt deeply violated!  How much more so must that family have felt it?

That type of violation is manifest as well when one rabbi takes it upon him or herself to make uninvited visits to the congregants of another rabbi, as did and does our local Chabad rabbi.  For when a rabbi visits his or her congregants in the hospital or when they are homebound, while the congregants do appreciate those visits, still in a way they also expect it.  After all, part of their rabbi’s job is to visit them.  However, when another rabbi visits – a rabbi who is not “paid” to do so by these congregants’ dues – then that visit tends to be considered especially virtuous.  “It was nice that my rabbi visited me but how wonderful of this other rabbi to come and visit me as well!  After all, he did not have to do that!”  Such visits do unfairly interfere with the relationships between rabbis and their congregants.

Just as such actions interfere with the relationships between rabbis and their congregants, so do they interfere with the relationships between congregations and their congregants for, right or wrong, congregants start feeling that they are being better serviced by the other rabbi and his institution than by their rabbi and their congregation.

Along these lines, another serious bone of contention has been Chabad’s insistence upon sending publicity flyers to members of the two synagogues; sending these flyers without specifically being asked by these congregants to be included on the Chabad mailing list.  This is but another form of illicit congregant solicitation.  Once again, it is a standard of inter-congregational relations that synagogues do not include members of other congregations on their mailing lists unless those individuals have specifically requested to be included.  This, too, is an issue of creating a predatory environment.

When it comes to our local Chabad rabbi, he claims that he only sends his publicity materials to the names and addresses on the list of Jews which Chabad purchased in advance of its coming to our community.  However we know that is not an accurate statement.  There is evidence that he has used, without permission, the Temple’s membership list, if not the membership list of the Tri City Jewish Center as well.  How do we know this?  Because Betty Cottrell, our non-Jewish retired office administrator, whose name and address appears in our Temple Directory, receives Chabad mailings.  There is very little, if any chance, that her name appears on any other compiled Jewish list.  The odds are extremely high that the only way that Chabad could have gotten her name on its mailing list was by taking it off of our mailing list.  And that was done without our permission.  That is highly unethical.

It could also be considered unethical when the local Chabad rabbi started befriending on Facebook the children of families belonging to the two synagogues.  To him, these children were complete strangers, yet as Jews they seemed to be legitimate targets.  Of course, anyone can choose to befriend anyone they want on Facebook, but at the least, his doing this was more than a tad creepy.

Inappropriate congregant visitations and recruitment have just been the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the transgressions of our local Chabad rabbi.

There have been those occasions when he has misrepresented himself to the general community as speaking for all Quad City Jews.  Soon after his arrival, he went around to several local businesses, soliciting paid ads in a calendar he was producing, telling these business people that his was the ONLY calendar which would be published in the Jewish community.  He said that, in spite of the fact that both of the synagogues also distribute calendars.  Indeed, at that time, the calendar of the Tri City Jewish Center included paid advertisements.  This type of  inappropriate approach to the non-Jewish community repeated itself during his first winter holiday season in our community.  It was then that he went to the officials at the Moline City Hall and insisted that since they had a Christmas tree in their lobby, the Jewish community demands that they display a Hanukkah menorah as well.  In this, he was not only not speaking for the entire Jewish community but he was, in fact, speaking in a manner contrary to the generally held position of our Jewish community; a position strongly in support of the separation of church and state; one which definitely would not want to see a Jewish religious symbol displayed on public property.  The damage done by this request was only compounded by the fact that he delayed for so long in removing that menorah from their lobby that the Moline city leaders decided not to have any holiday displays in their lobby in the future.

There are other aspects of his relationship with our non-Jewish neighbors which I find deeply disturbing as well.  For example, one day he met a local monsignor; a man of great public distinction and deservedly so.  Not only that, but this priest has been a long time friend of our local Jewish community.  When the priest extended his hand to shake, Rabbi Cadaner rejected it, stating that “We do not do that”.  Well, soon after that incident a member of the Jewish community intentionally offered to shake the Chabad rabbi’s hand, and they did.  So the message seems clear.  From his perspective when he says “we do not do that,” what he probably means is “we do not do that” with non-Jews.  As a small Jewish community, we depend heavily upon the good will of our non-Jewish neighbors.  Such prejudicial behavior hurts us all.

Likewise, when we held a community interfaith service in response to the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, the Chabad rabbi turned down an invitation to participate.  I cannot help but wonder:  Was it because he would not pray with non-Jews?  Was it because the service was held in the sanctuary of the Reform congregation?

Of course, our Chabad rabbi’s attitudes about the local synagogues and their clergy have not helped resolve our problems.  They have only exacerbated them.  My colleague, Rabbi Samuel, reported to me that in one angry encounter, the Chabad rabbi told him that he (the Chabad rabbi) was the only “real” rabbi in our community and that he would still be here long after Rabbi Samuel and I were gone.  Then there is the matter of his total disrespect for the clergy status of our cantor, who also happens to be my wife.  We met in seminary.  She is a fully credentialed cantor.  Still, Rabbi Cadaner refuses to recognize her clergy status and won’t even respond to her communications.  At one point, he requested that she be excluded from any formal meetings between the Jewish community leaders and Chabad.

Over the years, both congregations and the Federation have tried to make it very clear that in order for Chabad to truly be considered a part of our community, then it must abide by the rules which govern our community.  Unfortunately, time and again, Rabbi Cadaner has refused to accept that offer.

And this is what brought us to the recent crisis.  According to the bylaws of our Federation, the rabbis of the local synagogues are granted automatic seats, with voting rights, on the Federation Board.  In recent months, Rabbi Cadaner and the supporters of Chabad chose to insist that this provision be applied to Chabad as well the synagogues, and that Chabad itself be considered a synagogue.  Of course, that claim contradicts what Chabad had been saying all along; that our inter-synagogue rules do not apply to them because they are not a synagogue.  However, now claiming to be a synagogue, Chabad still claims that inter-synagogue rules do not apply to them because they are Chabad, and as such are unique.

The issue of whether or not to grant Rabbi Cadaner a seat on the Federation Board created a great rift in our community.  So much so that those on both sides of the issue threatened to withdraw their financial and human support of the Federation, should the decision go against them.  The supporters of Chabad threatened to do so, claiming that such a contrary decision would deny the Orthodox community representation on the Federation Board.  The opponents of Chabad threatened to do so, claiming that if the Federation officially recognized Chabad, it would also tacitly be  granting its seal of approval to Chabad’s continued violations of the rules of inter-congregational behavior; it would officially be approving Chabad’s predatory practices.  Such an abandonment of the long established local synagogues would simply be unacceptable.  It seemed as if, for the Federation, this would be a lose-lose situation, with them losing significant, perhaps vital, financial support no matter what they did.

This crisis was averted, thanks to the efforts and creative thinking of Jeff Goldstein.  It was Jeff who suggested that if the Orthodox community feels unrepresented, then let them be represented by a lay person on the Federation board.  In that way, our Federation could avoid being caught in the middle of a bitter struggle over the actions of Rabbi Cadaner.  Those of us who were opposed to Rabbi Cadaner’s being seated on the board, and by so seating him apparently granting Federation approval to his objectionable actions – myself included – had no qualms about the Orthodox community itself being represented.  Therefore, we had no problem with a lay representative.  But the ball rested in Chabad’s court.  Would they accept a lay representative in place of Rabbi Cadaner?  They were presented with the proposal, considered it for some time, and in the end, finally accepted it, turning a lose-lose situation for the Federation into a win-win.

Now it is time for us as a community to move forward.  And so we hope to do so.  However, we do so recognizing that our problems have not gone away, and they will not go away until Rabbi Cadaner and Chabad agree to become community team players and change the way in which they do their business; until they come to recognize and accept that they too are expected to abide by the very same rules and principles which govern the behaviors and inter-relations of both the Temple and the Center.  We have asked nothing more of them than we expect of ourselves.  We pray that someday soon they will decide to live up to those expectations.