Was Yosef on the Spectrum

March 24, 2020

Professor Majia Nadesan ● Canadian Journal of Disability Studies

What is autism? Although autism is ultimately a diagnostic category, people who exhibit symptoms we now label as autistic are not restricted to the modern era (see e.g. Houston & Frith, 2000). Detailed historical analyses of the concept of autism have described a constellation of symptoms that were formally delineated and medicalized in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but pre-existed contemporary nosologies (e.g. Hacking, 2009; Nadesan, 2005; Waltz, 2013).

People experienced as “different” in their communication and social pragmatics have troubled normative expectations across recorded history. Samuel Levine’s Was Yosef on the Spectrum: Understanding Joseph Through Tora, Midrash, and Classical Jewish Sources argues that Joseph, son of Jacob and Rachel from the Book of Genesis, was possibly autistic. Diagnosing people retrospectively as autistic raises complex “hermeneutic” or interpretive questions, including the possibility that our selective readings and attributions of recorded histories reveal more about our current concerns than past realities. Yet, while acknowledging this post-modern possibility of non-retrievable origins, the hermeneutic tradition offers a dialogic framework for understanding the mingling of the past and the present using the idea of a textual fusions of horizons (Gadamer, 2011). Roughly, the hermeneutic tradition holds that each reading of a historical text links the past and present, with the potential for a better understanding of the (“intersubjective” or social) self and its project forward. It is in the spirit of this hermeneutics that Levine’s text finds contemporary relevance.

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Open Orthodoxy founder tells story…

March 23, 2020

Yonah Jeremy Bob ● Jerusalem Post

Rabbi Avi Weiss has been running one campaign or another for decades.

Journey to Open Orthodoxy is likely his ultimate work, not only summarizing many of the issues where he has made a mark as the founder of open Orthodoxy, a spin-off of Modern Orthodoxy, but also showing his personal evolution along the way.

In this book, which traces his development from earlier writings, Weiss hits a veritable checklist of hot-button issues that virtually all Jewish denominations are struggling with in one way or another, but also seeks to present a unifying vision for his approach.

“My understanding of Open Orthodoxy goes well beyond such controversial issues as women and Halacha, interdenominational and interfaith relations and LGBT+ inclusion,” he writes.

He continues, “For me, Open Orthodoxy is holistic, all-encompassing, embracing the whole of Jewish spiritual, religious, halachic and national life.”

Walking a tightrope, Weiss said that he professes “an unequivocal commitment to the truth, validity and eternal applicability of the halachic system,” but that he disagrees with the Orthodox Right who view chemistry, language, medicine” and other areas of study as profane.

Rather, he says that “all disciplines are potentially aspects of the Torah. In a word, there is nothing in the world devoid of God’s imprint.”

Regarding gender issues, he explains that “Open Orthodoxy parts with the non-Orthodox community, as Halacha is not fully egalitarian.

However, he also pushes the envelope from his right flank, defending his ordaining of women with the title “rabba” (a feminine variation of rabbi).

This goes even farther than the title “maharat” (an invented title that gave women leaders recognition, but avoided called them rabbi), which is slightly less controversial in Orthodox circles, where women have traditionally not served as clergy. He states that the “rabba” title maintains female clergy within the role that Halacha permits them, but denotes “more dignity and respect” than other female clergy titles.

Fleshing out the difference between an Orthodox rabba and a non-Orthodox female rabbi, he writes: “In Conservative and Reform Judaism, a woman’s role is identical to a man’s role. In Orthodoxy, the roles of men and women in spiritual leadership overlap in 90% of areas, but there are distinctions.He explains that a rabba can conduct a wedding ceremony, including the reading of the ketubah (a form of a prenuptual agreement), but cannot sign the ketubah (which only men can do.) Moreover, he says that women can manage religious services in
ways permitted by Halacha, but do not count for the quorum of 10 required for a prayer service.

Another area where Weiss engages in a difficult balancing act is in addressing the homosexual community. On one hand, he does not conduct gay weddings. On the other hand, he writes that “to demand that gay people not have a life partner is, for many, akin to a death sentence,” stating that “we must do all we can to find a way for Halacha to help guide gay couples to live in loving partnerships.”

His vision of inclusivity is always broader than a specific issue. In the book, he says: “At its core, inclusivity sets Open Orthodoxy apart. This means interfacing with the nonaffiliated, other streams of Judaism and other faith communities… the elderly, and the physically and mentally challenged.”
Entering this minefield of pushing the envelope on so many contemporary issues, Weiss writes defensively at times as one who has already been attacked and is anticipating being criticized further.

Anticipating his critics, he says: “Open Orthodoxy is not simply about promoting particular views on cutting-edge issues; it also seeks out ways to achieve greater spiritual heights.”

He goes on to connect some of his trailblazing views to the Torah, remarking that, “like the Torah from which it emerges, Halacha is an eitz hayyim, a tree of life, and a living organism,” which is never afraid to confront “the needs of the day.”


He says that these institutions have “stepped into the breach. While many were convinced we could not succeed, we’ve exceeded expectations.”
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Weiss effused about his successors who have taken over the above institutions as well as the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, where he conducted services for decades.

At some point, Weiss swivels to controversial issues in Israel where he has staked out strong positions.

Though he said that his father revered the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, he criticizes it for “consolidation of rabbinic authority and use of coercive powers” which have “alienated much of Israel’s citizenry.”
More specifically, he rebukes the rabbinate for a situation where, “of the 300,000 Soviet émigrés to Israel who are not halachically Jewish, only 20,000 have been converted over the past 30 years.”

He accuses the Rabbinical Council of America of capitulating to what he calls the Israeli rabbinate’s unnecessarily onerous process.Weiss advocates easing the path to become Jewish and notes that the International Rabbinic Fellowship, which he founded, is a practical arm for implementing his more open approach to conversion.

Showing his character as a maverick, Weiss intersperses discussing down-to-earth controversies with a call to focus all efforts on soaring spiritually by embracing song and dance in prayer and an open-minded outlook emphasizing broader values like holiness and embracing other Jews as part of a person’s wide family.

Weiss’s book also has sections about religious Zionism, problems in the area of Jewish divorce, the Holocaust, Israel’s plight during the 2014 Gaza war and a variety of other issues he has dedicated himself to over the years.

One tension in the book is his explanation of his evolution.

For example, he says that he became more liberal on certain women’s issues after being confronted years later by a former student. The student shocked him with her explanation of why his earlier apologetics to convince her to accept parts of the prayer service which conflicted with her female identity had failed.

The arguments made by the woman were not new ones, so it appears that what changed Weiss’s view was hearing the human frustration of his former student, whom he respected.

It is not 100% clear from Weiss about where such emotional encounters should trump previously built intellectual foundations and how an open Orthodox person knows when to turn Right or Left.

But he did tell the Post that an open Orthodox approach to Jewish law serves as a bridge between past and present. It must be grounded seriously in tradition, but how a question is asked, addressing human pain and sizing up the sincerity of who is asking the question have a role to play.

In addition, to the extent there is no mathematical answer, this could also be because no one, in Jewish denominations or other faiths, really has a completely systematic answer for how to approach all of the many shocking and diverse new issues that modernity throws out at religion.

In any case, this book will be invaluable for anyone who wishes to understand the evolution of modern and open Orthodoxy and one of its trailblazers in recent and future decades.


State of the Heart – new review

March 17, 2020

Jack Reimer ● Boston Jewish Advocate

There are many miracles involved in Israel. The first, and the most obvious, is that it somehow still exists. The newspapers announced this week that Egypt—which is just one of the hostile countries that surrounds Israel—recently reached a total of a hundred million people! Hezbellah, which is a rabid foe of Israel, now has control of both Gaza and Lebanon. Iran, whose leaders have pledged to destroy Israel, continues to strive to become the dominant figure in the Middle East. And yet, Israel somehow survives.

When you count the population figures of Israel’s enemies, it is hard to understand how Israel has survived. There was one Zionist leader—I don’t remember which one it was—who said “that you do not have to believe in miracles to be a Zionist—but it certainly helps.”

And there is a second miracle that characterizes Israel and that is the one that this book tries to describe. It is true that there is corruption in the country. It is not a state composed of angels or of saints. It is true that there has been a coarsening of the discourse, not only on the floor of the Knesset where politicians berate each other with unseemly language, but on the crowded highways of the country, where impatient drivers yell at each other when they find themselves caught up in bottlenecks.

This is understandable in a country that imports a quarter of a million cars each year and that does not have the infrastructure to support this much traffic.

But what is hard to explain is what this book records: the amount of volunteerism in Israel, and the number of people who not only come to each other’s rescue in time of trouble, but the number of people who are ready to travel to any part of the world where people are coping with hurricanes or floods or tsunamis and need help.

You would think that a country which is constantly condemned in the United Nations would turn inwards and be concerned only with its own welfare and its own defense. You would think that a people that has so few allies in the world would become cynical and would not care when other nations are in distress. And yet, as this book documents, this is not so. Let there be a hurricane in Greece, or a fire in Australia, or a disaster at a public school in America, or a typhoon  in the Philippines, and Israelis are on the way.

Syria is one of Israel’s most implacable foes, and so you would think that Israelis would rejoice over the fact that it is caught up in a brutal civil war. You would think, to paraphrase what Henry Kissinger once said about the Vietnam War: “It is too bad that there can’t be two winners”. And yet Israel for years maintained what was called ‘a good fence’ on the border with Syria and took in thousands of civilians who were in need of surgery and urgent medical care. And it even sent doctors into Syria to set up emergency care facilities and to bring in medical supplies.

David Kramer records the experiences of some of these Israeli soldiers and civilians who have gone to places all around the world—some under the official sponsorship of the Israeli government and some as volunteers with ngos. Some of them are even in China right now, helping the scientists there cope with the Coronavirus, and helping the therapists cope with the traumatic stress that so many of the civilians are enduring there.

Will this book do any good in changing the attitudes of those countries that are hostile to Israel and who believe the stories that demonize Israel that are so widespread in the world today? Probably not, for many people think only once, and then repeat their points of view over and over again. But perhaps there are some people who understand that people are entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts.

And even if this book does not influence the rest of the world, we hope that it will influence Western Jews—especially those on college campuses—and help them to see the real Israel—which is a mixture of callousness and generosity, or corruption and kindness, which ought to be a model to the world.  

Jack Riemer is the author of two new books: Finding God in Unexpected Places and The Day I Met Father Isaac in the Supermarket, which are both available at Amazon.com


State of the Heart – new review

March 11, 2020

Dov Peretz Elkins ● Jewish Media Review

In State of the Heart, David Kramer takes us on a journey of Israel’s humanitarian efforts that began more than 70 years ago and continues unabated throughout the world today.

In this extraordinary and inspiring collection of over 50 stories, personal interviews, and photographs, David describes the benevolence and altruism that characterizes the nation of Israel. He engages the reader with narratives that identify and provide a glimpse into the compassionate soul of the Israeli people. 

Featured in these accounts are descriptions of life-saving technology and innovation, helping the disabled and teens at risk, managing food collection and distribution programs for the disadvantaged, immigrant absorption and elder care, infertility programs, women’s empowerment and human rights, rescuing victims in the aftermath of natural disasters worldwide, developing and providing life-saving solutions to those in developing nations, cleaning up and protecting the environment, and so much more. 

State of the Heart captures the unique level of concern, care and uncompromising sense of mission, undertaken by Israelis, within Israel and around the globe.

David Kramer is an educator, author and social entrepreneur. He has spent the past ten years helping Israeli and global non-profit organizations tell their story through a social start-up he founded in Israel. David spends much of his time meeting with tour groups in Israel, connecting them to the reality of life in Israel. He served in the Israeli army and lives in Jerusalem with his wife Tova and their five children. 


Was Yosef on the Spectrum – new review

March 10, 2020

Professor Ian Hale, PhD, FCIS ● Author of Asperger’s, Autism & You and The Insider’s Guide to Autism and Asperger’s

Samuel Levine is a prominent New York Law Professor and foremost Judaic scholar. He has written a unique and important book. It conjoins both factual Biblical history with modern neuroscience and psychology to tell us part of the yet unacknowledged story of the history of Autism. This book is special, it must be read.

Titled Was Yosef on the Spectrum?, published by Urim Publications, he combines his extensive knowledge of Rabbinical commentary up to the present day; with the Torah, the Talmud, and Autism producing a unique insight linking our past with the future. The Yosef referred to is the one from the book of Genesis.

Yosef was youngest son of Jacob, also known as Israel. He is best known as the wearer of The Coat of Many Colours, given to him by his father as a mark of his special status of wisdom from his youngest years and as the interpreter of dreams, much to the envy of his older brothers who plotted against him and sold him into slavery. After enduring many hardships Yosef rose to find favor with Pharaoh to become his chief adviser and wisest counselor. He was the visionary who saw the significance of his dream of seven lean cows consuming seven fat ones. He told Pharaoh it prophesized seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine throughout the lands of Egypt. Taking his advice, Pharaoh was careful to store the seven years of good harvests which saved his Kingdom from the famine Yosef had foretold.

During his life Yosef showed many of the now-recognized characteristics of an Autistic person. His determination, his special ability to identify and focus on important things, while being poor at the mundane and social aspects of life, which caused him many problems-but he never gave up, eschewing love of power, thinking always of the common good above himself. His strong sense of compassion (he forgave his brothers and made sure his family was looked after), his love of nature and care for people and animals, his fearlessness, his strong sense of justice and total unfailing loyalty to friends, even in adversity, and perhaps most tellingly, his “different brain” which allowed him to see what others couldn’t. It is precisely those characteristics which, today are so sought after by major corporations like Microsoft, IBM and SAP. Autistic people are special with their special, “mystic” skills and non-standard hyper-connection to creation and intelligences.

In recognizing this, we all owe a special debt to Prof Levine. This not just an account of the past, but a proven understanding of the present and a prophesy of Prof Levine himself to us all-here and now of a potentially glorious future. It is also a warning against ignoring what God has given to us with his gift of Autism to those He has chosen.

It is with real joy that I recommend this book without reservation to every reader who seeks true knowledge on all of the many subjects covered. It is a story of triumph against seemingly impossible odds (something all too many Autistic people and their families face today) and a message of hope. Truly one of the most outstanding reads of this, new century. It deserves seven stars.


Integration of American Jews Through Journalism

March 9, 2020

Neville Teller ● Jerusalem Post

Ron Rubin is an avid collector of American newspapers stretching right back to the early 18th century. A professor of political science at the University of New York for more than 50 years, Rubin retired in 2016 and devised the idea of telling the story of America’s Jews through what appeared in the newspapers of the time. In Strangers and Natives he brings the concept to brilliant realization, hence his book’s subtitle: A Newspaper Narrative of Early Jewish America 1734-1869.

Turning the pages of this book is a continuous delight to the eye, for throughout the volume, the selected news items and articles are illustrated by reproductions of the originals. So as a by-product of the history, we also see how American journalism developed over the centuries. This triumph of book design is the work of the highly experienced Peri Devaney, who is rightfully credited on the cover.

Strangers and Natives tackles the development of the Jewish community in America from a variety of angles, starting back in 1734, some 60 years before the Declaration of Independence. On March 25 of that year, The New York Weekly Journal carried an advertisement urging anyone who believed they were owed anything by the late Benjamin Elias to come forward. Elias had been a merchant as well as a Hebrew teacher and shochet (ritual slaughterer) at Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue that was the first Jewish congregation in North America.

Rubin ends his story, except for an additional item or two, with The Alexandria Gazette’s account of the first Rosh Hashanah after the end of the Civil War in 1865 – the Jewish New Year of 5626. Jews featured prominently on both sides of that conflict. The secretary of state of the Confederate States of America – the 11 breakaway states opposed to ending slavery – was Judah P Benjamin. In February 1865, with the South fast crumbling and already thinking of suing for peace, The Baltimore Clipper carried a front-page account of a speech by Benjamin advocating what must have seemed a radical proposal to the South generally. He proposed freeing African American slaves as a way of enhancing the manpower of the Confederate Army. Such a move, he said, would add 680,000 additional troops.

On the other hand, in April 1865, one week after President Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated, The Pittsburgh Commercial ran an article praising the Jewish contribution to the Union cause. It set out the numbers of enlisted Jews from the different states of the Union, calculating that a total of 40,000 Jewish soldiers had, in its own words, “shown a full share of patriotism since the war began.”

Across 12 chapters, Rubin traces the saga of how Jews slowly became integrated into the American way of life. He covers the development of Jewish communal affairs, including the expansion of synagogues across the growing country, and the part played by Jews in the fields of education and literature, in journalism, business, politics and various other aspects of the rapidly growing nation. He does not omit the obstacles placed in their way from time to time.

For example, antisemitism reared its ugly head quite early on, and Rubin records instances in The New York Gazette in 1746, and The Pennsylvania Gazette in 1751, of the offer of rewards following the vandalism of Jewish burial grounds. Against this, the philo-semitism of Benjamin Franklin is well documented. As The Pennsylvania Gazette records, well ahead of the British Parliament, Franklin’s so-called Jew Bill of 1753 proposed allowing foreign-born Jews to obtain English citizenship, bypassing the required oath of loyalty to the Church of England. To its credit, the Gazette was strongly in support if the bill, but it was a proposal well ahead of its time, and popular opposition proved too strong.

A century later, the American press followed the long and intense struggle within the British Parliament on the related issue of permitting a practicing Jew to sit in the House of Commons without swearing loyalty to the Church of England.

In 1847, Baron Lionel de Rothschild was elected to Parliament as an MP for the City of London. As The New York Herald reported, he refused to take his seat because he was required to take an oath to the Christian faith. When he was reelected in 1849, the paper noted that he had won “by an overwhelming majority,” and commented that “the event is regarded as an unmistakable sign of the determination of the citizens to secure what is termed full religious liberty.” In point of fact, the impasse continued, as Rothschild won his seat again in 1852 and then in 1857. It was not until 1858, after the provision of Christian affirmation was removed, that he finally entered the House of Commons.

Rothschild’s struggle, reported in the American press, was carefully followed by American Jews. It may well have played a part in ensuring the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, 10 years later, which finally removed religious restrictions on holding any political office in the United States.

Strangers and Natives provides a unique perspective on American-Jewish history – the first account to draw its material solely from contemporary newspapers. By doing so, and because of Peri Devaney’s fascinating design, which shows the actual items in print, we are able to see history unfold as it was happening. The book goes well beyond news stories. We see also advertisements, announcements, obituaries and accounts charting the changing pattern of Jewish life and achievement. It is highly recommended.


Strangers and Natives – New Review

February 24, 2020

Israel Drazin

Ron Rubin’s “Strangers & Natives: A Newspaper Narrative of Early Jewish America 1734-1869,” contains very fascinating and very informative information about the daily life, problems, successes, and customs of Jews in America during the early years of the United States. It includes information about the Jewish involvement in many facets of the country’s life: politics, military, education, literature, journalism, and more.

While there are many history books that address these subjects, this is the first time where the documents, diaries, memoirs, and periodicals are published. Readers can see the originals of these materials which have been scanned and printed in this book. They will also be able to read Professor Rubin’s comments on each original document.


Much is revealed in these documents, such as Grant’s infamous expulsion of Jews from Tennessee, the work of Mordecai M. Noah, the involvement of Jews in the Civil War, the daily activities of Jews during this period, Benjamin Franklin’s philo-Semitism, the hatred of others against Jews, opinions expressed whether Christians should work to convert Jews, and much more.