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Letters to the Editor

Answering a challenge to Jewish law on abortion

How is it that Jewish scholars have studied Exodus 21:22-23 for three-and-a-half millennia and gotten abortion wrong? According to Shmuel Wolkenfeld in your Feb. 14 issue, they’ve fundamentally misunderstood the Hebrew. Therefore, he implies, Jewish law should right itself — or Jews should disregard Jewish law — and adopt his Christian stance of opposing abortion in all cases, even when the life of the mother is at stake, even when the fetus is the result of rape. I’ll grant Mr. Wolkenfeld that language can be ambiguous. And yes, experts can get meaning wrong, sometimes with far-reaching implications. (Consider, for example, the Greek mis-translation of the Hebrew word, “almah” — young maiden — as “virgin.”) Ambiguously worded or not, what counts most is the iron-clad consensus reigning among faithful Jews that our scholars have gotten right the meaning of Exodus 21, linguistically, legally and morally.

Rabbi H. Scott White
Congregation Ohev Sholom

Words of wisdom

I was very proud to see you had chosen the prophetic words of my cousin, the late Seymour Fox, in the Feb. 21 issue of the Jewish Chronicle. (“Education that is essentially pareve — that’s neutral and doesn’t take a strong stand — has little chance of succeeding. … All effective education has at its foundation a distinct and well-considered vision.”) Seymour born in Chicago, had a strong Kansas City connection to the Lesky, Stolowy and Planzer families. He visited his cousins and kept in contact with us until his untimely death at age 67 on July 10, 2006.

Seymour had a Ph.D. in education, was an ordained rabbi and author. He was a Jewish educator and a builder of institutions. After a short term as a professor at the School of Education at Hebrew University, he remained in Israel to head the School of Education for 14 years. From 1954-1966 he took charge of the Ramah summer camps, bringing brilliant Jewish speakers and scholars to enhance the commitment to Judaism and leadership to thousands of campers. In 1960 he established the Research Institute for Innovation and the Melton Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora.

Seymour’s prolific life as an educator and innovator is too long to print. His importance in Israeli and American Jewish education and philosophy and his influence upon the many graduates who hold positions in Jewish education throughout the world, is a tribute to his life.

Janet Price
Overland Park, Kan.

A little clarification regarding tattoos and Jews

The Feb. 21 edition included a Jewish celebrity news story about Drew Barrymore having her tattoos removed “so that she can be buried in a Jewish cemetery.” I encourage you to write an article about this topic to clarify the misconception about Judaism and tattoos.

I am not in favor of tattoos and agree with Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser, “What would you gain by having a permanent tattoo placed on your body? It will not make you a better person. If you imagine that it would make you feel better about yourself, you may have issues about your self-image that no tattoo will solve. It’s worth asking tough questions like these before making a choice as a young person that you will carry with you for the rest of your life.” However, I would like to correct the misinformation that was perpetuated in the Jewish Celebrity Roundup in the 2/12/13 issue of the Chronicle from a Star magazine report regarding Drew Barrymore removing her tattoos. My research from the New York Times, myjewishlearning.com, chabad.org, judaism.about.com, and thejc.com indicates that while Jewish practice rejects tattoos as idolatrous, violating the body, or reminiscent of forced tattooing of Holocaust victims, there is little basis for a tattoo preventing someone from being buried in a Jewish cemetery.

“The eight rabbinical scholars interviewed for this article, from institutions like the Jewish Theological Seminary and Yeshiva University, said it’s an urban legend, most likely started because a specific cemetery had a policy against tattoos.” (Kate Togovnick, July 17, 2008) http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/17/fashion/17SKIN.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

“But, however distasteful we may find the practice there is no basis for restricting burial to Jews who violate this prohibition or even limiting their participation in synagogue ritual.” Rabbi Alan B. Lucas is Rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom in Roslyn Heights, New York, reprinted online with permission of the Rabbinical Assembly. (http://www.myjewishlearning.com/practices/Ethics/Our_Bodies/Adorning_the_Body/Tattoos.shtml)

“The Torah1 forbids us from tattooing our bodies. Nonetheless, one who has had tattoos can still bury in a Jewish cemetery. That said, every Jewish burial society has the right to enact its own criteria for who may and may not be buried in their plot.... This practice by certain burial societies led to the common misconception that this ban was an inherent part of Jewish law.” (Chani Benjaminson, co-director of Chabad of the South Coast and member of the editorial staff of chabad.org) http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/533444/jewish/Can-a-person-with-a-tattoo-be-buried-in-a-Jewish-cemetery.htm

“I do not know of any rabbi or Jewish cemetery that would refuse to bury a Jew because their body had a tattoo. That would be a terrible violation of the Jewish principle of Kavod Ha-Meit, giving honor to the dead.” Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser, http://judaism.about.com/od/conversi2/f/tatoos_burial.htm

“There were certain Jewish cemeteries which instituted their own bans, in order to discourage people from having tattoos, but there isn’t actually a halachic prohibition against burying people with tattoos.” Rabbi Yisroel Lew, Bloomsbury Chabad House in London http://www.thejc.com/news/world-news/102542/jewish-burial-hope-has-film-star-drew-barrymore-seeking-tattoo-removal.

Alice J. Capson
Overland Park, Kan.