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Every Jewish holiday has its rules, and the foods you should eat. And Purim is no different. We’re expected to listen to its story, during the reading of the Megillah. We are obliged to remember those less fortunate by giving tzedakah, or charity. We are told to enjoy a celebratory feast. And, finally, we are commanded to share our joy by sending festive food packages to at least one other person.
Each of those packages should contain a minimum of two items, one of which is baked. It’s most traditional to find hamantaschen in these little packages, but there is no rule that it must be, which is good news for those eager to try something else.
Cookbook author and baker, Katja Goldman, prepares breads in the shape of a crown and stuffs them with foods both healthy and savory, referencing the crown worn by Queen Esther, the title character and heroine of this story. Katja’s stuffing is a reminder of the foods that tradition tells us Esther allowed herself to eat while living in the palace with her Persian husband, King Ahasuerus. Esther was a Jew, but she kept her religion and true identity from her husband. She kept the laws of kosher eating, kashrut, by eating a vegetarian diet, one rich in seeds and beans.
This savory bread recipe is a cross between a challah and a bialy, stuffed with onion and poppy seeds and topped with more beautiful poppy seeds. So if poppy seed hamantaschen aren’t quite your thing, this stuffed challah might be a delicious counterpoint.
The following recipe is excerpted with permission from The Community Table, Recipes & Stories from the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan & Beyond by Katja Goldman, Judy Bernstein Bunzl and Lisa Rotmil.
I’d always had a steady relationship with my insomnia and had come to appreciate its predictable nature. Until a few weeks ago, when everything changed.
I’m a night owl—have been since my teenage years—and I usually go to bed between midnight and one a.m., unless I can’t settle down and wind up staying up all night. When I pull an all-nighter, whether I’m productive or unproductive, I do not drift asleep in the hour before dawn. I maintain a lucidity of thought through hours of sleeplessness until my alarm forces me off the couch to get ready for school.
Both the quantity and the quality of my insomnia shifted in 2018. I now find myself unable to stay awake past nine p.m. Lately, I neglect the tasks, such as grading papers, I usually perform after dinner, crawl into bed long before anyone else in the house does, and fall fast asleep. After 4-5 hours, having slept a typical amount for me, I’m wide awake again by 2 a.m., and by 3:30 I’m slipping in and out of dreams I can neither comprehend nor remember when I fully wake.
When I returned to school after the Rabbis Without Borders retreat and three consecutive nights of fitful dreams, my students, who had been studying Genesis 28 in my absence, were ready to review verses 10-22. For this chapter, We’ve been reading the translation in Professor Friedman’s The Bible with Sources Revealed and exploring Documentary Hypothesis. Many students easily identified how Jacob’s first encounter with God appears to be two different descriptions of two different dreams woven together into a single narrative. One part of the narration includes visual imagery—a ladder with angels—while the other is auditory, recounting God’s words to Jacob. Upon awakening, Jacob responds to each part of the dream in kind. First he creates a pillar and pours out oil, using tangible objects to worship God, and then he makes a vow, using his words to mirror God’s speech in the dream.
Thanks to my own insomnia-inspired dreams, I saw something in the text I’d never seen before and I posed a question to my similarly sleep-deprived students:
“Did you ever partially wake up from a dream and fall back asleep, and you’re still dreaming the same dream but it’s different?”
This leads to a discussion about their dreams, as well as the different descriptions of Jacob’s dream. I teach them the word “epiphany,” which they have not yet encountered on their vocabulary-building website. We discuss Jacob’s vow, which strikes most of the students not as an acceptance of but rather a challenge to God’s authority. We wonder what these different narrations might teach us about Jacob’s ability, or inability, to trust in God at this stage of his journey.
“This is our patriarch, the father of the Jewish people,” one student remarks. He’s not impressed with Jacob’s behavior toward his family or his relationship to God. I reply that we still haven’t learned about Jacob’s interactions with his Uncle Laban, his struggles in another dream and his reunion with his brother. We’ll have to keep reading to see whether Jacob will be transformed into the hero of our story before we arrive at spring break.
Some students have heard these stories before; now we are studying them in depth. We read through the lens of our own life experiences as we develop and apply critical thinking skills to the biblical text. Periodically I remind my students that I, too, read this text with different eyes every time I teach it.
This year, my eyesight is slightly unfocused from interrupted sleep and my mind is occasionally distracted by stray thoughts of half-remembered dreams. In the darkness, I pray to encounter God as Jacob did in his dreams. In the classroom, standing before my students with my well-worn copy of Friedman’s Commentary on the Torah, I believe my prayers are answered.
Don’t let the humble-sounding dishes like Shabbos chicken, cholent pot pie and baked cheese blintz on the menu at Philadelphia’s Abe Fisher, fool you. Since opening a few years ago, the restaurant and its chef, Yehuda Sichel, have received their fair share of well-deserved accolades. The eatery was named “Best New Restaurant” in the January 2015 issue of Travel + Leisure, and earned a semifinalist nomination in the James Beard Award’s “Best New Restaurant” category.
Not bad for a place whose menu centers around chopped liver and borscht, not exactly the sexiest dishes around. Abe Fisher is actually one of the many eateries, including Zahav and Dizengoff, owned by Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook.
The praise is for some pretty traditional Jewish food, but Sichel is not making “newish Jewish” deli, nor is he churning out shakshuka and labne dishes inspired by Israeli cuisine. He is making some of the most exciting Jewish food in America rooted in the traditional dishes of his upbringing, with modern, fresh techniques and ingredients. Yes, including some bacon.
I actually had the pleasure to enjoy a meal at Abe Fisher three years ago, where I walked away feeling excited and inspired by the selection of savory rugelach and knishes that were served in place of dinner rolls; duck fat blintzes; and the bacon, egg and cream custard dessert, which still remains on the menu (and yes, has a bit of bacon). But it was Sichel’s cholent pot pie that recently caught my eye on Instagram, the most elegant version of cholent I had ever seen, and gave me the opportunity to speak with Chef Sichel about his background, what inspired Abe Fisher’s menu and where Jewish food is going.
Jewish food is definitely going mainstream, and we know there is going to be fast casual Jewish food, since this is the current trend. But all Jewish food isn’t Ashkenazi, and I think that part of this evolution is educating people on the origins of Jewish food. A Yemenite dish and a Lebanese dish are not the same. When I worked for Mike [Solomonov], he was always emphasizing the origins of the dish: the religion, and the region and how the dish became part of Israel’s landscape.
I also think it’s not enough to just make Jewish food the way it has always been made; that’s how cuisines die. A pastrami sandwich can’t be dry and bad quality — it still has to be really good. I want to cook the best piece of meat and be more thoughtful about ingredients. By elevating Jewish food, we will keep it alive.
Chopped liver, which is already something that is an acquired taste. It is visually unappealing and often sold in large quantities. But I wanted to make it something people would love. The texture of our chopped liver is different, it’s beautiful and smooth. Served over a pastrami onion jam, which adds sweetness and smokiness. A way to elevate chopped liver, and I think we really nailed it.
I grew up in a super strict kosher home in Baltimore and I didn’t even have bacon till I was 20 years old. I grew up in an observant family; my maternal grandparents were Holocaust survivors, and I went to an all-boys yeshiva. Religion was at the forefront of everything. So the only way I was able to go to culinary school was to go to the kosher culinary school in Israel, which was The Jerusalem School of Kosher Culinary Arts (the school is no longer open).
I went to Israel for my bar mitzvah, for camp and then culinary school. But I never learned anything about Israeli food, even in culinary school, where we were cooking almost all Ashkenazi food. But I was eating everywhere, and occasionally we went to a winery or the market, where I did get a taste of Israeli cuisine. When I got back to the States, I saw what Mike (Solomonov) was doing and I just thought it was so cool, and it definitely wasn’t trendy at the time. When I ate there, I thought, “Wow – this is THE BEST eggplant salad, THE BEST hummus and THE BEST bread. They were making this Jewish-Israel food, but doing it at such a high level. I had a lot of respect for what they were doing and wanted to be part of it.
At Zahav, I was always trying to add more cabbage and potatoes to the dishes, and Mike was trying to brighten things up with lemon and other ingredients. After being at Zahav for so many years and then briefly at Citron & Rose before it closed abruptly, I needed to cook my kind of food and Steve and Mike had the idea for Abe Fisher. The idea started with just 18 very vague dishes that Steve and Mike came up with, and I was able to put my interpretation of what those dishes could be. Some didn’t work at all. After two months, we changed the menu. We made a lot of mistakes, which actually resulted in some incredible dishes. The dishes represent how I wanted these foods to taste.
I had done a cholent dish in the past when I was a chef at Citron & Rose but we did larger plates: lamb shanks on top of cholent-flavored stew and kishke served on the side. A deconstructed cholent, so to speak. When I got to Abe Fisher, we wanted to do small plates and I wanted to figure out a way to elevate this simple stew, but didn’t want to just serve a beef stew for $15 — that wasn’t going to wow anyone. But when you put bread on top, it turns into a meal and something exciting. Get the recipe!
I think Jewish food is experienced like any other cuisine. For example, when I eat Vietnamese food, I don’t necessarily know what I am going to eat. But I enjoy it. At the end of the day, our non-Jewish customers are really enjoying the food. The response has been great, and people are interested in the story of the traditional foods. We make these foods relatable to everyone by re-approaching and re-thinking them. My intention with our food is to be playful not offensive. There can still be Jewish food that’s not kosher.
Make sure to check out the recipe for Chef Sichel’s Cholent Pot Pie here.
One of the fun part about baking hamantaschen is, of course, getting fun and creative with the fillings. But I love this recipe because it has a little fun with the dough itself, imitating one of my favorite chocolate chip cookie recipes with both brown and white sugar and mini chocolate chips.
You could fill these cookies with anything you like, but my favorite fillings are dulce de leche (I buy the jarred kind from Trader Joe’s), cookie butter or chocolate hazelnut spread. Like with any hamantaschen baking, make sure to chill the dough for at least one hour before rolling it out, and pinch the corners very well to ensure the cookies keep their shape.
It can be hard to pronounce and keep straight the myriad Jewish words and phrases in common parlance. Especially because for those of us who are not native Hebrew or Yiddish speakers (as well as the auto-correct functions on our phones), many of these words and phrases sound similar to one another.
Below are some common Jewish words paired with their verbal doppelgangers, words that sound similar, yet have vastly different meanings. To spare you some potential embarrassment, we explain it all in alphabetical order below.
Did we miss some important ones? Comment below or email us at email@example.com.
Challah (חלה), pronounced KHAH-luh, is the braided bread traditionally served on Shabbat. Find some great challah recipes here.
Kallah (כּלה), pronounced kah-LAH or KAH-luh, is Hebrew for “bride.”
Chesed (חסד), pronounced KHEH-sed, is usually translated as “lovingkindness,” and describes acts such as visiting the sick and helping the poor.
Hasid (חסיד), pronounced KHAH-sid,is a Hasidic Jew, someone who is part of an ultra-Orthodox spiritual movement that began in late 18th-century Europe and comes from the same Hebrew root as chesed.
Chodesh (חודשׁ), pronounced, KHOH-desh, is Hebrew for “month,” and is most often used in the term Rosh Chodesh, the celebration marking the beginning of each new Jewish month.
Kodesh (קודשׁ), pronounced KOH-desh, is Hebrew for “holy,” as in sefer kodesh (holy book), am kodesh (holy people) and limmudei kodesh (holy studies).
Chuppah (חופּה), pronounced KHOO-pah (oo as in book) or khu-PAH, is a Jewish wedding canopy.
Chutzpah (חוצפּה), pronounced KHOOTZ-pah (oo as in book) or khootz-PAH, is Yiddish (and Hebrew) for “nerve” or “audacity.”
Eruv (עירוב), pronounced AY-ruhv or ay-RUVE, is a boundary inside of which Shabbat-observant Jews are allowed to carry items or push strollers on Shabbat.
Erev (ערב), pronounced EH-rehv, means “evening,” and commonly refers to the first night of a Jewish holiday and sometimes the day before the holiday, as in Erev Yom Kippur.
Hamsa (חמסה), pronounced HAHM-suh, is a hand-shaped amulet.
Hametz (חמץ), pronounced khah-METZ, is leavened food traditionally avoided during Passover. Learn more about keeping kosher for Passover.
Hummus (חומוס), pronounced KHOOM-oos (oo as in book) or KHOOM-oos (oo as in food) is a chickpea puree popular in Israel and throughout the Middle East. Find hummus recipes here.
Kibbitz (קבּץ), pronounced KIB-itz, is Yiddish for chat or small talk, as in “I ran into my friend at the store and kibbitzed with her.”
Kibbutz (קיבּוץ), pronounced kee-BOOTZ (oo as in book), is a collectively run residential and economic community in Israel.
Kiddush (קידושׁ), pronounced KID-dish or kee-DOOSH (oo as in boot), is the blessing that is said over wine to sanctify Shabbat. (It comes from the same root as kodesh, meaning “holy.”)
Kaddish (קדישׁ), pronounced KAH-dish, usually refers to the Mourner’s Kaddish, an Aramaic prayer said during all Jewish worship services where a minyan is present. (It also shares a root with kodesh.)
Mashgiach (משׁגיח), pronounced mahsh-GHEE-ahkh, is a person who supervises a commercial or institutional kosher kitchen and ensures that dietary laws are observed.
Moshiach (משׁיח), pronounced moe-SHEE-ahkh, is Hebrew for “messiah.”
Seder (סדר), pronounced SAY-der, is a ritual meal that follows a certain order, usually used to refer to the Passover seder (like the one above). However, many Sephardic Jews also have a Rosh Hashanah seder, and the holiday of Tu Bishvat (the birthday of the trees) also has a seder.
Siddur (סידור), pronounced SIDD-er or see-DOHR, is a Jewish prayer book. Like seder, it derives from the Hebrew root samech (ס), dalet (ד), reysh (ר), which means “order.”
Sheitel (שייטל), pronounced SHAY-tull, is Yiddish for a wig that some Orthodox women wear to cover their hair after they marry.
Shtetl (שׁטעטל), pronounced SHTEH-tull, is the term for a historic Eastern European village with a significant Jewish community.
Shtiebel (שטיבל), pronounced SHTEE-bull, is a small synagogue, usually referring to a small ultra-Orthodox synagogue.
Shtreimel (שטריימל), pronounced SHTRY-mull, is a type of fur hat worn by some Hasidic men.
Simcha (שׂמחה), pronounced SIM-khuh or seem-KHAH, is Hebrew for “joy” and is used to refer to a joyous Jewish occasion, such as a wedding or bar/bat mitzvah.
Smicha (סמיכה), pronounced SMEE-khuh or smee-KHAH, is Hebrew for rabbinic ordination.
Tisha B’Av (תשׁע בּאב), pronounced TISH-uh bahv, is the ninth of the Jewish month of Av, a day of mourning commemorating the destruction of the ancient temples in Jerusalem.
Tu Bishvat (ט״ו בּשׁבט), pronounced too bish-VAHT (oo as in boot), is the 15th of the Jewish month of Shevat, a holiday celebrating trees.
Tu B’Av (ט״ו בּאב), pronounced too buh-AHV, is the 15th of the Jewish month of Av, a day celebrating romantic love that is often referred to as “the Jewish Valentine’s Day.”
Yizkor (יזכּור), pronounced YIZ-kohr, is the memorial service that is part of four Jewish holidays: Yom Kippur, Passover, Sukkot and Shavuot.
Yahrzeit (יארצייט), pronounced YAHR-tzight or YOHR-tzight, is the Yiddish word for the anniversary of a death. Learn how to mark a yahrzeit.
It’s not easy to face our own mortality, and perhaps even harder to imagine losing our loved ones. Which is why many of us just avoid the issue.
Whether your reticence comes from anxiety, religious superstition or fear of engaging with a morbid subject, experts advise everyone to consider these issues earlier rather than later, even when you are young and healthy. Some rabbis even encourage newly engaged couples to discuss advance care planning before their wedding and to revisit the topic when a child is born or around other lifecycle events.
Why the rush? If you delay thinking about what you want for the end of your life, you and your loved ones may end up forced to make difficult decisions very quickly and under duress. And you may be in no condition at that point to articulate your decision, leaving your loved ones to guess about your preferences. According to a recent report by the Pew Charitable Trust, 70 percent of Americans over the age of 60 had to make a decision about treatment during their last week of life but were physically unable to communicate their wishes to family or clinicians. Only about 1 in 3 has completed an advance care plan for the end of their life.
“Too often, we see families stuck in situations they could never have imagined, as a result of not having had conversations before loved ones lose the ability to make decisions for themselves,” says Melanie Levav, a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York who works as a hospice chaplain. “Gaining clarity on how we wish to live as we approach death is a vital conversation; none of us will survive death, but all of us have the chance to live well.”
End-of-life conversations can include a number of issues, such as who we want making decisions about our health when we are unable to do so on our own, where we want to be treated (At home? In a hospital?), how many medical interventions we want doctors to use and where (or if) we want to be buried. Toby Weiss, director of cultural sensitivity and Jewish programming for MJHS Hospice and Palliative Care in New York advises family members to check in about these topics often and alter their previous plans if their feelings have changed.
Not only is it important to draft an advance directive in which you designate a health proxy to speak for you, Weiss says, but you have to actually speak with your proxy — and yourself. “The hardest conversation to have is the one you have with yourself first,” Weiss says. “That’s the one people avoid most.”
There are a number of reasons to push past the discomfort, however. Rabbi Charles Rudansky, director of pastoral care for MJHS Hospice and Palliative Care, counsels families to discuss these issues sooner rather than later to allow “the person that is dying the opportunity to make decisions on their own terms.” He wishes there wasn’t “such a taboo among Jews who feel they shouldn’t talk about death or dying or that we are a religion that should only focus on life.” He wishes these kinds of conversations were at the front and center of Jewish life, not just in nursing homes and in hospice but well before that time.
One of the most important reasons to discuss these issues before it’s too late is to remove any sense of guilt one’s family members might feel if they are forced to make decisions for a loved one without an advance care directive. Simple questions like whether or not to install a feeding tube can create anxiety and uncertainty for family members. And modern medical advances can add to the difficulty.
Dr. Alex Hakim, director of the ICU at Providence: Little Company of Mary Hospital in Torrance, California explains, “Medicine was easier when the loved ones of a patient came to the physician and said ‘do everything you can,’ because ‘everything’ meant a limited set of procedures and medications. Now that we can literally bypass failing hearts and lungs with mechanical devices or chemically maintain the pulse and blood pressures of near brain dead individuals, patients who are actively dying can be maintained in a near death state for months and sometimes years at a time. From my experience, having the discussion with your immediate relatives and friends about what you would accept in an end-of-life situation and what life and a ‘good death’ mean to you are immensely beneficial.”
End- of- life conversations can go beyond plans for medical care and touch on the realities of where participants want to be buried, whether they are comfortable with cremation, what they want their funeral to look like, and how they want to be remembered once they are gone. It can also give loved ones the opportunity to share with each other feelings that are often reserved for eulogies and never heard by the family member when they are gone.
There are a number of ways to initiate an end-of-life conversation with your family or friends, and it doesn’t have to be awkward or uncomfortable.
It’s sometimes helpful to bring in a third party like a trusted social worker, doctor, or rabbi to help families engage in end-of-life discussions. Medicare will pay for advanced care planning conversations between doctors and patients, so this is something to consider bringing up when accompanying family members to their medical appointments.
Another resource is the Death Over Dinner project, which helps facilitate group conversations on death, offering explanatory invitations sent to guests and guided discussion topics for the hosts. With her husband, Sarah Benor, professor of contemporary Jewish studies at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, hosted a Death Over Dinner event for friends while their kids were away at sleepaway camp. “Even though it’s talking about death, the way it’s set up is also talking about life, how you want to be remembered, and what you want to do in your life,” she said. “We talked about bucket list things, and there were also people who had lost parents and other loved ones who talked about their losses. It was a little bit about life and a little bit about mourning and a little bit about how we expect to want to die. It made me feel closer to my friends to hear about their mourning experiences. These are really personal things, things you don’t share with a lot of people, so I guess it was a bonding experience for us, a community building exercise.”
Elizabeth Saiger was motivated to host an end-of-life conversation for a group of parents from her daughter’s nursery school after attending a how-to seminar through Ikar, her synagogue in Los Angeles. “We talked about what our eulogies might be like, what we hoped people would say about us, and we shared a story or a moment we hoped would be definitional of who we were,” she said, adding, “While I think a conversation around medical interventions and end-of-life care can be fruitful, it was nice to take it up a level and talk about what we valued.” Saiger and her invitees created such a bond after their initial meeting that they decided to keep the group going and have since met monthly, branching out into other difficult-to=talk-about subjects.
These discussions don’t have to be depressing, notes Melanie Levav, the rabbinical student and chaplain. “Taking care of the business of death lifts up the sacredness of life,” she says.
The website allows, you to plan a dinner party, invite guests with a customized scripted letter, send them related reading materials to engage with before meeting, and select conversation starters to help introduce the topic and why it’s worth talking about. There is also a Death Over Dinner: Jewish Edition available.
A gathering, usually of strangers, who come together over a cup of coffee and talk about death. There is no formal script to follow; the goal is to create a space where people can talk about death in order to better appreciate life. Social workers often agree to host these conversations. You can look for one near you on their website.
This document helps families organize these conversations by asking specific questions (meant to be answered and recorded) about end-of-life care, like who the person wants making health care decisions for them, what kind of medical treatment they want, how comfortable they want to be and how they wish to be treated.
A rabbi can help you initiate these conversations with your family members and give you suggestions on some “opening lines” to begin these talks drawing from their own personal experiences with your loved ones.
If you don’t have a rabbi, begin the process yourself with something like The Conversation Project which offers a starter kit for these talks.
After you’ve had these conversations, a website like Gyst.com can help you put together a living will, an estate will and order life insurance.
Yesterday evening, my friend Yusuf, of the Palestinian village of Beit Umar, offered an amazing insight concerning the sanctity of the Temple Mount.
We were both participants in the Jewish-Muslim interfaith dialogue group run by the Roots initiative, of which I am one of the founders. Roots, the Palestinian-Israeli grassroots initiative for understanding, nonviolence, and transformation, brings together local Israelis and Palestinians in the Gush Etzion-Bethlehem-Hebron area for authentic, deep encounters that challenge and change those who take part in them.
The topic we had chosen for this month was Jerusalem. I presented a short survey of verses in the Bible dealing with the significance of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple. I pointed out that at the dedication of the First Temple, King Solomon made it very clear that it was meant to be a house of worship not only for Jews but also for “the stranger who comes from a far-away place for Your name’s sake” (I Kings 8:41).
I discussed the Jewish belief in the rebuilding of the Temple as a source of Divine light and blessing, and to close I read the beautiful verses in Isaiah 2:3-4:
Many peoples shall go and say, come let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, and He will teach us of His ways and we will walk in His paths … and they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
Before beginning his presentation about Jerusalem in the Muslim tradition, Yusuf reacted to what I had just taught. Greatly animated and yet a bit puzzled, he said that it sounds as if the Jews should see the Al Aqsa mosque that now stands on the Temple Mount as part of the fulfillment of their ancient dream to see a house of God erected on that holy mountain. Mosques in general, he said, are open to all believers for prayer. We Muslims should welcome you into al Aqsa. Why do we have to think in terms of a violent zero-sum game of Al Aqsa or the Temple? Can’t they be one and the same?
At that point, Rebecca, a haredi woman who is a regular participant in these dialogues and a force to be reckoned with, responded — of course! When the mosque was first built by the Caliph Umar after he conquered Jerusalem in the 7th century, that was pretty much the intention. He saw Jerusalem as a holy city and the Temple Mount as sanctified ground partially because Muslim tradition tells the story of the Holy Temple that had been built there by the Jewish King Solomon at the behest of God. He built the mosque as a continuation of Jewish tradition and not in opposition to it.
And the ten Jews and the ten Muslims in the room seemed to nod their heads in agreement! Khaled Abu Awwad, the Palestinian director of Roots, then interjected with a mind-boggling connection. The Al-Aqsa mosque, he pointed out, literally means the far-away mosque. Could it be, he asked, that the Koran calls it that in allusion to the verse in First Kings that talks about the Holy Temple being a house of prayer for “the stranger who comes from a far-away place”?
Indeed, for quite a while I have been toying with just such an idea of a radical change of Jewish perspective concerning the Al Aqsa mosque, although I have not had the audacity to say it out loud. Perhaps we have been a bit blind, unable to see that the beginning of the flowering of redemption is already out there in plain sight. The Rambam (Maimonides) already wrote almost a thousand years ago that Islam (as well as Christianity before it) may be seen as part of a Divine scheme to spread the word of monotheism throughout the world and to prepare the way for the messianic era. Perhaps we should see the Al Aqsa mosque as part of that process, and celebrate and embrace it instead of viewing it as something foreign.
Who knows what would begin to happen were Jews in Israel and the world over to begin to appreciate the role of Al Aqsa in our vision of the Temple Mount as a focal point for love of God and human harmony? Would Muslims ever respond positively? How would it affect our aspirations for the future rebuilding of the Temple? Might Al Aqsa be expanded to make room for us? Might a larger complex be built that included the mosque and much more, with Al Aqsa being seen as part of the Temple itself (And the Temple being seen as part of Al Aqsa?)?
Of course, it is in no one’s partisan interest to take such a proposal seriously. There are thousands of reasons to reject it out of hand. Many Jews might say that after a thousand years of maintaining our identity against the Muslim onslaught, now we are going selling out? Other Jews might respond that the mosque does not begin to fulfill any of the technical conditions related to the rebuilding of the Temple. Muslims will see this as a political plot to take over their beloved mosque. But above all, the real problem with the idea is that it challenges the ingrained hubris of exclusivity that is so foundational to both of our identities.
After all, this is really about identity, “us” and “them”, one in opposition to the other. Precisely in grappling with the idea presented here we may have an Archimedean point from which to build out to a broader shared identity that celebrates not only our particularity but also our commonality. In so doing we might come one step closer to the realization of the lofty vision of world peace put forth over two millennia ago by the prophet Isaiah.
Decisions concerning medical care in the final stages of life present a range of Jewish ethical and legal conundrums. They are often messy and complicated, and they have vexed ethicists, medical professionals and religious leaders alike.
While Jewish tradition maintains that human life is of infinite value and that its preservation and extension overrides virtually every other religious imperative, relieving pain and allowing for the soul’s peaceful departure are also values well-established in Jewish tradition. Of course there is a moral distinction between hastening death and removing obstacles to its natural progression, but in practice the difference isn’t always easy to discern.
Below is a general overview of a number of issues that commonly arise at life’s end — and how Jewish authorities have weighed in on them. Jewish thinkers often emphasize that specific cases vary substantially and must be considered individually. And while weight is always given to a patient’s wishes, those who are concerned about complying with Jewish law are always urged to consult with trusted advisers.
For patients unable to eat or drink, doctors can provide food and water intravenously or through a feeding tube. This is a common situation faced by those with advanced-stage dementia. Most Orthodox authorities generally consider nutrition, hydration and oxygen — even if artificially provided by a feeding tube or ventilator — to constitute essential human needs that should never be discontinued as long as they are effective. This position is was also reflected in the 1990 paper on end-of-life care authored by Conservative Rabbi Avram Reisner. However, the Conservative movement’s religious law authorities also endorsed a paper by Rabbi Elliot Dorff, who advanced several possible justifications for removing artificial nutrition and hydration for the terminally ill, among them the contention that a medically administered treatment that conveys food and water to the patient by tube is more properly regarded as medicine than as simple food and water.
Hospice is a form of medical care for people suffering from terminal illnesses with a life expectancy of six months or less. Patients are typically referred to hospice care when further medical treatment is not expected to reverse the course of their disease and they elect instead to focus on therapies geared toward reducing pain and sustaining the highest quality of life for as long as possible. Jewish hospice programs are typically equipped to provide hospice services while abiding by Jewish traditions. Because hospice focuses on a patient’s quality of life rather than aggressive medical treatment, some Orthodox rabbis do not believe hospice conforms with Jewish tradition. However, not all Jewish authorities agree. Many contemporary Jewish authorities argue that Jewish tradition allows a focus on comfort and pain reduction and the eschewing of aggressive medical interventions in certain circumstances.
Known as DNRs, these are legally binding directives signed by doctors ordering medical professionals to withhold CPR or advanced life support in the event a patient’s heart stops functioning. DNRs are typically requested by patients who are elderly or are suffering from an advanced terminal illness that makes it unlikely they would survive CPR without a severely diminished condition. Some Jewish authorities consider these orders extremely problematic, as a patient needing CPR is in acute distress and could be saved, even for a brief period, with proper treatment. But given the often low success rate of resuscitation and the high likelihood of adverse effects for the elderly or those weakened by terminal illness, some authorities permit DNRs under certain conditions. Reisner, in his 1990 paper on treatment for the terminally ill, writes that it is proper to respect a patient’s DNR request in cases where it is not possible to restore “a full measure of life.”
These are documents specifying a person’s wishes concerning medical care in the event they are unable to make such decisions for themselves and/or appointing a health care proxy to make decisions on their behalf. The laws concerning advance directives vary considerably from state to state. A number of state-specific forms are available here. In addition, both Conservative and Orthodox Jewish versions of advanced directives are available, some of which explicitly state a person’s desire to have Jewish law and custom respected in their health care choices. There is typically also space to name a specific rabbi to be consulted when making such choices.
While most Jewish authorities would require a patient to submit to a therapy if it is known to be effective at curing their condition, this is not the case with respect to experimental treatments whose success rate and potentially adverse side effects are not known. These can include treatments whose effectiveness has yet to be demonstrated in clinical trials, or new drugs whose safety and effectiveness have not yet been established. Jewish authorities from across the denominational spectrum support the right of a patient to refuse treatment that is risky or of unproven value. Equally, a patient who desires to undertake an experimental therapy in the hope of being cured is permitted to do so even if there are risks involved. According to some authorities, this is even the case with a hazardous treatment that may itself result in death. Dorff writes that it is permissible to undertake a hazardous therapy if it presents a “reasonable chance” of cure, even if it simultaneously poses a risk of hastening death if it fails.
Jewish tradition generally requires that every effort be made to sustain and extend life, but that position is not absolute. In cases where diseases are incurable, and medical interventions would be risky, painful, of uncertain efficacy or serve merely to prolong a life of unbearable physical or psychic pain, there is support in Jewish tradition for an individual’s right to reject such treatment. This was the reasoning behind the Reform Rabbinate 2008 ruling that a lung cancer patient did not have to submit to chemotherapy that could extend her life by three months, but only at a cost of significant pain and suffering. Within the liberal denominations, there is broad respect for individual autonomy in making decisions concerning health care, including the right to refuse care if the patient feels it would not be effective or would be too painful. Among Orthodox authorities, there is also support for refusing treatment in situations where it would not cure the patient but would only prolong individual suffering.
Taking active steps to hasten death are prohibited in Jewish law, but praying for death is another matter. The 14th-century Catalonian Talmud scholar Rabbenu Nissim, commenting on the talmudic story in which the maidservant of Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi prays for his death, observes: “There are times when one should pray for the sick to die, such as when the sick one is suffering greatly from his malady and his condition is terminal.” (Nedarim 40a:2) The Jewish bioethicist J. David Bleich has formulated it this way: “Although man must persist in his efforts to prolong life, he may, nevertheless, express human needs and concerns through the medium of prayer. There is no contradiction whatsoever between acting upon an existing obligation and pleading to be relieved of further responsibility.”
Many Jewish legal experts believe it is permissible to withhold advanced life-support measures from terminally ill patients. However, once such measures have been provided, withdrawing them to let natural death occur becomes more problematic. While there are grounds in Jewish law for withholding advanced life-support measures from terminally ill patients, once such measures have been provided, withdrawing them to let natural death occur becomes more problematic. As a general rule, withdrawing life support is not permitted in traditional readings of Jewish law. However, there are many contemporary Jewish authorities who consider a person to be dead if activity in their brain stem stops. If such a patient were kept “alive” only by means of medical machinery, these authorities would permit those machines to be disconnected. For those seeking to adhere to more traditional interpretations of Jewish law, there have been some interpretations used by rabbinical medical experts, that have been applied to withdraw treatment in cases where a patient is entirely dependent on machines for breathing and blood circulation and has little hope for recovery. However, it must be considered on a case by case basis, informed by accurate information between the physician, rabbi and family.
Jewish authorities from across the spectrum of religious observance, from Reform to ultra-Orthodox, support the lifesaving potential of organ donation, with some authorities going so far as to suggest that Jewish tradition mandates organ donation. Traditional requirements — such as burying the dead quickly, avoiding defilement or benefit from a dead body — that would seem to preclude organ donation are superseded by its lifesaving potential. The Halachic Organ Donor Society (an organization for Jews who want to strictly comply with Jewish law) offers an organ donor card that specifically states that any transplant procedures be conducted in consultation with the deceased’s rabbi. The Conservative movement has a similar card.
Most Jewish authorities adamantly reject euthanasia or assisted suicide of any kind. Taking active steps to hasten one’s death is considered tantamount to suicide, while assisting another to do so may be considered murder. A number of Reform rabbis have challenged this view, questioning the validity of the commonly drawn distinction between active measures to hasten death and merely withholding treatment or removing impediments to death. Peter Knobel, a prominent Reform rabbi and past president of the movement’s rabbinical association, has argued that in certain cases, active euthanasia may even be a praiseworthy act, however this remains a decidedly minority view. Over the years, the Reform rabbinate has repeatedly reiterated its opposition to euthanasia and assisted suicide.
While honesty is a well-established imperative in Jewish tradition, there is ample precedent for the idea that full disclosure of a terminal diagnosis ought to be withheld from a patient since it may sap their will to live. Various biblical sources are cited in support of this idea, including the prophet Elisha’s response to the query of Ben Haddad, in which the prophet told the king he would recover from his illness though he knew the opposite was true. The Shulchan Aruch rules that, while a person near death is instructed to confess their sins, they must also be reassured that many have confessed their sins and not died. (Yoreh Deah: 338) Bleich has gone so far as to suggest that a doctor not only refrain from conveying information that might cause a patient to despair and thereby hasten their death, but he must continue to “feign medical aid even though there is no medical purpose in his ministrations.”
End-of-life decisions can be challenging, particularly for those who wish to ensure that the decisions comply with traditional Jewish law. And, while there are areas of consensus, there are also differences in how Jewish leaders interpret relevant Jewish teachings and texts. While the article provides an overview, we encourage families concerned with abiding by Jewish practices and beliefs when facing these difficult decisions to consult with trusted spiritual leaders for advice.
“End of Life: Jewish Perspectives” By Rabbi Elliot Dorff
Since last summer, I’ve spent a lot of time traveling as an ISJL Education Fellow. Recently, a trip I took to Shreveport, Louisiana, took an unexpected — and quite unpleasant — turn.
The trip started well; it was my third time heading to that community. I drove the stretch of I-20 feeling calm and looking forward to the weekend ahead. I arrived safely, and was welcomed warmly by my hosts, Bill and Helaine Braunig. I was fortunate enough to experience Shabbat Shira on Friday night — a collection of talented musicians leading services for a special, extra-musical Shabbat. On Saturday morning I led a text study, with the privilege in participating in interesting conversation. I then was able to learn a little about sustainable agriculture in preparation for a religious school program for Tu Bishvat.
Things took a turn on that Saturday, late in the evening. We were getting ready for a teacher dinner, which Helaine was going to be hosting, and as the evening wore on, things just didn’t seem quite right with my stomach. The teachers came by, we had wine and cheese, but I didn’t make it past the hors d’oeuvres (yes, I had to look up how to spell that).
Sickness hit me and it hit me hard — it was the beginning of a nasty little stomach bug.
There’s nothing like getting violently sick on a work trip, in someone else’s home, with a bunch of teachers in the other room, to help give you some perspective. Think you were having a bad day at work that last dreary Monday? Ha… no. This was worse.
For a few sad moments as the stomach bug took hold, I felt not only very sick but also very alone. But as soon as it was clear I needed help, I was reminded that I was not alone: I had eight people there on my team. The teachers who had come over for dinner, none of whom I’d known before last summer, were immediately committed to my care and comfort.
There were phone calls made to have medicine dropped off, phone calls made to doctor-friends for guidance, and errands ran to Kroger to get some liquids with electrolytes and soup. Through my own miserable sweat, tears, and sickness, I knew I had their support, which was more than any amount of Pedialyte® could do for my health.
The only thing I could think of on the drive back home, late the next day, was how much love I felt in those dark hours. Although I was full of appreciation for the care I received, I was not surprised.
In the depth of my sick, when I felt less like a traveling Jewish professional and more like a sick little girl who wanted to be held by my mommy in San Antonio, I was still able to find care and familial comfort in Shreveport. Thank you to the community there, to the teachers, and to Helaine and Bill, for being a little home away from home and reminding me that we all really do take care of each other.