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Swedish education minister vows to keep neo-Nazi party out of schools

Fri, 06/13/2014 - 13:12

(JTA) — Swedish neo-Nazi activists will not gain access to schools, the country’s education minister said amid a public debate on a far-right party’s request to expose pupils to its materials.

Minister Jan Bjorklund said on June 11 that “we all agree, that to let pure Nazi parties meet with our young people will not happen,” during an interview for Sveriges Radio.

Last month the Simon Wiesenthal Center joined other groups in appealing to the Swedish education ministry to block the participation of Svenskarnas Parti, which is widely viewed as a neo-Nazi movement, in a school civics program that teaches youths about the local political system.

The issue became a major point of contention in Sweden after the Swedish government’s National Agency for Education reportedly decided last month to approve the application of the party –- which has no lawmakers in parliament –- to participate.

In a letter to the minister, Shimon Samuels, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s director for international relations, urged Bjorklund to “prevent the Nazification of Sweden’s school system” and block the party’s access to schools where it would “endanger immigrant, Muslim, Roma, homosexual and Jewish students” with its “racist platform and discourse.”

On Friday, Bjorklund convened a meeting between political party representatives, Sweden’s parliamentary ombudsman and the country’s chancellor of justice to discuss way to block the party from schools, Elin Boberg, a ministry spokesperson, told JTA.

The minister, she said, “announced that the government will appoint a commission on political parties’ access to the school.”

The commission is to lead an “inquiry is to conduct an analysis of the rules and regulations schools should approach when it comes to inviting political parties to schools. It should be considered whether the school should be able to limit the number of political parties that the school receives for objective reasons, such as to apply to those portions which are still represented in parliament.”

She added: “Time does not permit law changes for 2014 elections. The inquiry will be added shortly and headed by a lawyer.”

Dhammakaya Temple

Fri, 06/13/2014 - 12:02

The Wat Phra Dhammakaya, north of Bangkok, Thailand, is the world’s largest Buddhist temple and one of the fastest growing groups within Buddhism. As many as one million followers can participate in corporate meditation in the temple courtyard. But Dhammakaya also has its critics, who question the motives of its leaders and ask whether nirvana is for sale at this temple unlike any other. “People often think Dhammakaya only cares about donations or cares about getting people to the temple, but that is just an impression based on outer appearances,” says Phra Sandr, a Buddhist monk from the Netherlands. “When people come here for a while they notice that there is a very important core where people are learning to practice character.”

The post Dhammakaya Temple appeared first on Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

Upanayanam

Fri, 06/13/2014 - 12:01

We visited a Hindu religious coming-of-age ceremony for nine-year-old Rushil Ramakrishnan at the Hindu Temple in Adelphi, Maryland. Also known as the “sacred thread” ceremony, it is typically performed for boys between the ages of 8 and 16 and traditionally marks the start of their formal education. Dr. Siva Subramanian, a neonatologist at Georgetown University Hospital and a founder of Sri Siva Vishnu Temple as well as other Hindu associations in the metropolitan Washington, DC area, presided over the two-day ceremony. He explains the meaning and significance of its elaborate rituals and Sanskrit chants.

View more pictures by photographer Sam Pinczuk:

The post Upanayanam appeared first on Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

4,000 Moscow Jews Fete Russia Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar on 50th Birthday

Fri, 06/13/2014 - 10:12

Approximately 4,000 Jews attended Moscow’s first “Festival of Judaism” which organizers planned as a celebration of the 50th birthday of Chief Russian Rabbi Berel Lazar.

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Russian Jewish Students Get Shavuot Do-Over Test Date

Fri, 06/13/2014 - 09:46

Russia’s education ministry has agreed to provide Jewish students an alternative date for a matriculation exam which took place on the Shavuot holiday.

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Thousands celebrate Moscow festival honoring chief rabbi

Fri, 06/13/2014 - 08:40

(JTA) – Approximately 4,000 Jews attended Moscow’s first “Festival of Judaism” which organizers planned as a celebration of the 50th birthday of Chief Russian Rabbi Berel Lazar.

The festival was held on June 8, two days after Lazar’s birthday, at the Jewish Museum And Tolerance Center in Moscow and featured 50 stations where staff and volunteers presented visitors with explanations about elements of the Jewish faith including teffilin, kashrut and scripture, Museum Chairman Rabbi Boruch Gorin told JTA.

“This was the first time we organized an event of this sort, which we planned as a way to celebrate rabbi Lazar’s 50th birthday, but we hope to make it an annual event,” he said. Gorin, who is a Chabad rabbi, added that Moscow has few Jewish events of the scale seen at the museum during the festival, with the exception of  the Jewish Agency’s Jerusalem Day celebrations and Lag B’Omer events.

The event was advertised on Russian Jewish  media, social media and news sites “and this obviously generated a large turnout and a predominantly-Jewish crowd,” Gorin said.

Russian Jewish pupils get alternative date for matriculation test

Fri, 06/13/2014 - 08:31

(JTA) — Russia’s education ministry has agreed to provide Jewish students an alternative date for a matriculation exam which took place on the Shavuot holiday.

The concession was announced last week in a letter addressed to Berel Lazar, a chief rabbi of Russia.

“Students and graduates unable to take the Unified State Exam for religious reasons may be tested on June 16,” read a letter that Russia’s Ministry of Education and Science  sent last week to Lazar.

Boruch Gorin, a senior advisor to Lazar, chairman of Moscow’s Jewish museum and editor-in-chief of the Jewish L’Chaim paper, said that the ministry had agreed in the past not to schedule state exams on the summer holiday of Shavuot, which fell this year on June 3-5 “but they seem to have forgotten this year.”

Education ministry officials initially declined Lazar’s request for an alternative date, saying that “providing an alternative date would be illegal because of the secular nature of the education system,” Gorin said. “So Rabbi Lazar brought up the matter several weeks ago during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who asked the ministry to nonetheless make the change nonetheless. Earlier this month we received confirmation an alternative date would be provided.”

Citing the Russian constitution, the ministry letter also said that the ministry “places an emphasis on the secular character of the state education as a matter of policy.”

The matriculation exam is a general test combining question on various subjects “and without it, graduates cannot get accepted to universities so it’s fairly crucial.”

Observant Jews are not allowed under Orthodox Jewish religious laws to work on Shabbat and on important Jewish holidays, including Shavuot.

Russia has a Jewish population of approximately 360,000 Jews, most of whom are not observant.

Rabbi vs. Rabbi Blackmail Case Rocks South Africa

Fri, 06/13/2014 - 08:00

A bizarre case of blackmail by one rabbi on another has come to light in Cape Town, South Africa, according to the Afrikaans-language newspaper Rapport.

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Jewish 'Fanaticos' Mix Love of Soccer and Faith at World Cup

Fri, 06/13/2014 - 06:00

The eyes of the world are glued to the soccer stadiums of Brazil. But a group of Argentinian fans has a slightly more spiritual focus during the World Cup.

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The Elephant in the Room

Thu, 06/12/2014 - 17:44

EDITORIAL: The Republican Party has shifted so far to the right that even Eric Cantor is hounded out. That’s bad for the GOP, bad for America — and bad for the Jews.

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Chabad Rabbi on Scooter Chases Down Burglary Suspect in Palm Beach

Thu, 06/12/2014 - 14:15

A rabbi rode a motor scooter to chased down a suspected burglar after spotting him outside of a Palm Beach, Florida Chabad house.

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Should robots count in a minyan? Rabbi talks Turing test

Thu, 06/12/2014 - 12:56

A “Bot-Mitzvah” depicted on the TV show “Futurama.” (Via Hulu)

NEW YORK (JTA) — Robots can hold a conversation, but should they count in a minyan?

A chatbot at Britain’s University of Reading was heralded this week as passing the Turing test, showing a conversational ability that managed to fool people into thinking it was human.

Using the fictional identity of a 13-year-old Ukrainian boy with the name Eugene Goostman, the robot convinced a third of a panel’s members that they were interacting with a fellow human being.

While some have expressed skepticism about the achievement’s significance, the advance of artificial intelligence raises profound questions.

“From the practical legal perspective, robots could and should be people,” Rabbi Mark Goldfeder wrote in an article published on CNN’s website in response to the robot’s feat. “As it turns out, they can already officially fool us into thinking that they are, which should only strengthen their case.”

Goldfeder, a fellow at Emory University’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion, is working on a book on robots in the law tentatively titled “Almost Human.” An Orthodox rabbi, Goldfeder spoke via online chat with JTA about whether robots could some day be welcomed as members of the Jewish community and what the Jewish tradition has to say about this issue.

JTA: What got you so interested in the topic of robots in Jewish law?

Goldfeder: It was a natural evolution from apes actually. I started off looking at the line between humans and non-humans in Jewish law, and realized that the demarcation was not as clear cut in ancient times as appears to be now.

Throughout the discussions in rabbinic literature we find creatures like Bigfoot, mermaids, centaurs, etc., and yes the golem, who in many ways resembles a robot.

Once you assume it may not be a strictly speciesist argument, the move from great apes to robots is quite understandable — given, of course, the caveat the robots may not be technically alive in the classical sense.

What are the basic criteria that would make a robot/monkey/mermaid Jewish?

Well, we start with the Talmud in Sanhedrin, which tells us the story of Rava sending a golem to Rabbi Zeira. Rabbi Zeira ends up figuring out that the golem was not human — it couldn’t communicate effectively and couldn’t pass the Turing test, apparently — and so he destroys it.

The halachic literature asks why this was not considered “ba’al tashchis,” wasteful, since maybe the golem could have counted in a minyan.

While they conclude that this golem at least was not able to be counted — they leave open the possibility of a better golem counting — it seems then that creation by a Jewish person would give the golem/robot presumptive Jewish status. For living things there is always parentage and conversion.

I should of course clarify that this entire discussion is “l’halacha v’lo l’maaseh,” a theoretical outlaying of views.

Good clarification, though being a robot seems like a convenient excuse to opt out of a bris.

In halachic terminology we would consider him “nolad mahul” (i.e., it is like he comes from the factory pre-circumcized).

Theoretically speaking, say a robot walked into your office and said, “Rabbi, I want to count in the minyan.” Would that be enough evidence for you to count him?

Not necessarily. For the purposes of this discussion, I would accept the position of the Jerusalem Talmud in the third chapter of Tractate Niddah that when you are dealing with a creature that does not conform to the simple definition of “humanness” — i.e. born from a human mother or at least possessing human DNA, but it appears to have human characteristics and is doing human things — one examines the context to determine if it is human. When something looks human and acts human, to the point that I think it might be human, then halachah might consider the threshold to have been crossed.

This makes sense from a Jewish ethical perspective as well. Oftentimes Jewish ethics are about the actor, not the one being acted upon. If I see something that for all intents and purposes looks human, I cannot start poking it to see if it bleeds. I have a responsibility to treat all that seem human as humans, and it is better to err on the side of caution from an ethical perspective.

In your opinion — more sociological than halachic — what’s your read on how seriously should Jewish institutions be preparing for the eventuality of artificially intelligent congregants or constituents?

I think the difference between science fiction and science is often time. If you were to ask me now, I don’t think Jewish institutions need to start worrying about it quite yet. Even with the Turing test officially passed, we are quite far from the situation of having a robot capable of walking among us unsuspected. But I do think that Jewish thinkers should start tossing around the questions because we’re probably 30, not 100, years away.

Why Eric Cantor's Loss Will Hurt Jewish Democrats, Too

Thu, 06/12/2014 - 06:00

Liberal Jews are dancing gleefully on Eric Cantor’s political grave. But Noam Neusner writes they shouldn’t gloat — his loss is a sign of big trouble for them too.

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Eric Cantor's National Profile Proved Toxic in Rural Virginia District

Wed, 06/11/2014 - 21:59

A combination of over-confidence, neglect of his district and voter anger at congressional leaders fueled Republican Eric Cantor’s stunning primary loss in Virginia, an upset that rocked the Republican Party.

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Eric Cantor Loss Plunges Jewish Republicans Into Despair

Wed, 06/11/2014 - 18:45

Eric Cantor’s shocking defeat left Jewish Republicans speechless. But what does his demise say about the future of the party — and its always tenuous tie to the Tribe?

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Cantor resigning House leadership post

Wed, 06/11/2014 - 17:28

(JTA) — U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor said he will resign as House majority leader a day after losing a Republican congressional primary in Virginia.

Cantor made the announcement late Wednesday afternoon at a meeting with House Republicans and later at a news conference, the Hill reported.

The resignation will take effect by the end of July. Elections for majority leader and whip will be held June 19, the Hill reported.

Cantor, 51, the only Republican Jewish lawmaker in the House of Representatives since 2009, lost in his Richmond district to Tea Party challenger Dave Brat in a major upset.

After a career in the Virginia legislature, Cantor was elected to the House in 2000 and was made chief deputy whip just two years later. He rode the Tea Party wave to majority leader after the 2010 elections.

Peace, Love and Understanding: David Broza Talks about Peace and Music at the Commission on Social Action Meeting

Wed, 06/11/2014 - 15:00

At the recent Commission on Social Action (CSA) meeting, CSA members and those participating in the Social Action Skills Training Seminar had the opportunity to hear David Broza perform songs from his latest album, a collaborative project in which music is used as a conduit to discuss peace.  Broza’s newest album, called “East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem,” is an effort to bridge the Jewish-Arab divide in Israel. 

Broza describes his album and the efforts behind its creation: “It’s better than talking.  A lot of people dream and say, ‘I want to do, I want to do, I want to do.’  The interesting thing is to do and stop talking.”  The album is a compilation of coexistence anthems by Israeli, Palestinian and American musicians.  In his presentation as the keynote speaker on the Monday night of the conference, Broza talked about the relationship with Palestinian musicians he has built over the years, which you can read more about in a New York Times article called “Seeking to Bridge the Arab-Jewish Divide With Music.”

In addition to speaking about both his own and his family’s experiences as Israelis, his musical background, and his most recent project, David Broza also sang several titles from his new album.  One song that struck a chord with attendees is called “The Lion’s Den.”  The song is based on a poem written by Judea Pearl, the father of Daniel Pearl, a journalist who was killed in Pakistan in February of 2002.

Broza also spoke about the song “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.” On the album, the song is sung by David Broza and the Jerusalem Youth Chorus, an ensemble of high school students from East and West Jerusalem who sing together and engage in dialogue.  The last song of the evening was his most famous song, “Yehiye Tov,” which translates to “it will be all right.”  Broza explained how he wrote the song based on a poem by Yonatan Geffen in 1977 on the eve of Anwar Sadat’s historic visit to Israel.  The emotion in the room was palpable as Broza talked about the expectancy and hope of Sadat’s visit and what this might’ve meant for peace in the Middle East.  Broza explained that since the initial song had been written, he’s written several new verses as different events have taken place in Israel.

We are grateful to have had David Broza share his commitment to music as a conduit for peace. To learn more about David Broza’s most recent project, and hear samples of the songs on the album, visit his website.

Cantor Sings Sad Song – in Virginia

Wed, 06/11/2014 - 13:36
U.S. Congressman Eric I. Cantor, the majority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives was surprisingly defeated by a Tea Party affiliated candidate who challenged Cantor in a Republican primary election in Virginia. Cantor, who is the highest ranking elected Jewish Republican in the U.S. (the only one in Congress), and one of the most […]