A Farewell to Laylabelle

Laylabelle in 2019

As you will soon understand, what I write now has been heavily on my mind for more than three months. A week before our arrival in Marquette, we brought Laylabelle, our standard Poodle, into our Knoxville veterinarian for her regular teeth cleaning. The vet removed a small skin tag from her gumline and said he didn’t think it was anything serious but would still send it off to the pathologist.

A week later, we had just moved into our summer digs and Terri was sitting at the kitchen counter when her phone rang. It was our vet calling to tell us that the pathologist found the skin tag to be metastatic melanoma. That meant that Laylabelle’s lifespan would be measured in weeks rather than months or years. He ran through some medical alternatives which included things like removing part of her jaw followed by chemotherapy. But that would not likely add more than a year to her life, and she would be very debilitated for most of that time.

To say the least, we were in a state of shock. After all these years of planning to have a great summer up on Lake Superior, we were looking at watching our beloved animal companion sicken and die. The skin tag that was removed soon turned into a tumor, and Terri kept track as it grew large enough to impair her eating. At that point, we made the decision to have our Marquette veterinarian remove the tumor although he cautioned us that it would return fairly soon, and with greater force. But it did give Laylabelle an additional month of a happy life up here on The Lake. She also got to go to Milwaukee with us and visit the grandkids and Shoshana and Karl’s beautiful dogs, Jazzie and Dottie.

Five weeks after the surgery, Laylabelle’s tumor was back with a vengeance. Now covering two teeth and bleeding. While Laylabelle continued to walk with a spring in her step and shower us with affection, she lost the ability to eat regular dog food. This week, she had trouble eating soft, canned food and things like the scrambled eggs I brought her from our hotel breakfast.

At 4:30pm today, we brought Laylabelle to our Marquette vet and two vets agreed that the time had come. Not only was the tumor inoperable, but in all likelihood the melanoma had spread to other parts of her body. By 4:45pm, our beautiful puppy of eleven years had slipped away from us. In a few days, her ashes will join her older foster-sister Nina de Amor on the coast of The Great Lake.

Allan Falk for the Win!

My friend Allan Falk sent me this wonderful story about an episode from his legal career which involved a synagogue in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. What follows is his own retelling.


Word reached me (Allan Falk) from a friend I’ll call Jim that his old boyhood shul in Iron Mountain, Michigan, Anshe Knesset Israel Congregation, was down to 4 living members, one of whom was a widow who is not actually Jewish herself. The surviving congregants had decided to sell the shul (and completed a sale to a non-profit drug treatment outfit early in 2020). But while the shul was on the market, the local tax assessor put the property on the tax rolls in 2019 (without proper notice), and in order to complete the sale they were going to have to pay the property tax of about $1500, plus a late penalty.

Iron Mountain Congregation Anshe Knesseth Israel

Of course, I inquired how the assessor had failed to give notice. She made a half-hearted, ill-conceived attempt to do so–she mailed notice to a person who had been treasurer of the congregation many years earlier, but not to his current address which had been the Iron Mountain cemetery for about 25 years. She then resent notice to a person with a similar name to someone else in Georgia, who had no relationship to anyone or anything in or near Iron Mountain or connected with the synagogue. This bit of idiocy was in the context of the congregation President walking into City Hall monthly to pay the utility bill, and being known to the City Treasurer–in fact, it was on one such occasion that in casual conversation the City Treasurer mentioned that the synagogue’s property taxes were past due that brought the problem to anyone’s attention.

Jim also indicated that the assessor had put the property on the tax roll after inspecting it. I asked how the assessor gained access for her inspection, and it turned out the assessor and the realtor were friends, so the realtor, without checking with anyone connected to the synagogue, gave the assessor the key. The assessor saw that there were books on the floor (the book shelves had been given to the Green Bay, Wisconsin Chabad) and concluded that no religious services had been held for some time (the last formal service had been a few years earlier, when a family reunion brought a large group back to Iron Mountain). The passage of more than a year (and failure of the congregation to protest the assessment, of which it had no knowledge, at the March, 2019 Board of Review meeting) meant that the tax issue could not be favorably resolved in any Michigan court or similar proceeding (such as the Michigan Tax Tribunal). Thus, I began considering, literally, how to make a federal case out of the matter.

So, after my initial legal research, I wrote a letter to the Mayor, City Treasurer, and Assessor, pointing out that whether or not religious services had been held in the past millennium or not, under a precedential Michigan Court of Appeals decision the property remained exempt from taxation until put to a different, non-exempt secular use. I also note that the realtor had no authority to use the key for any purpose other than showing the property to a potential buyer, the assessor not having any intention to buy, and thus, under other law I cited, the assessor’s entry into the property was a trespass, and when done for purposes of inspection in her official capacity, was a violation of the congregation’s 4th amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures. I propose that, if the City will merely refund the $1637 in property taxes and late fees, the matter would be fully resolved. But I further warned that if my proposal were rejected, the City and its officials involved would be facing a possible federal court lawsuit under the Civil Rights Act of 1870, and be liable not only to refund the $1637, but to pay damages and my attorney fees. My letter, which I vetted with Jim and his group (lest my scorched earth approach leave them uncomfortable), allowed ample time for a response.

Two weeks later I got a phone call from a person who identified himself as the attorney for the City of Iron Mountain (he’s a senior partner in the largest law firm in town). He asked for more time to respond, and I agreed. The time elapsed, so I called him back–he claimed he needed more time, and again I consented. But the time again expired, and when I follow up he promises (it’s Monday) he’ll definitely have an answer for me on Friday–he gives me his word (N.B. It is unethical, and grounds for discipline, for a lawyer to make a false statement to anyone at any time–hard to believe, I know). The following Monday, having heard nothing, I call and find he is on vacation. I e-mail him, asking if perhaps his boss ordered him to take vacation, as it seems to have come as a surprise to both him and me. He writes back, telling us to pound sand (he’s a bit more lawyerly, but that’s the gist of it).

So I go back to Jim and his group, noting that their choice is to admit they were bluffing and walk away, or authorize me to file suit. After much consternation about the optics and a last attempt at compromise by having their President speak with the mayor to determine if the city attorney was actually doing as instructed (apparently he was), they give me the green light, and I file my complaint on behalf of the synagogue, Jim and his brother, the president, and the widow in federal court: Count I, illegal search and seizure (4th Amendment), Count II, denial of due process (lack of notice–14th Amendment), Count III violation of synagogue’s 1st Amendment rights by rescinding its tax exemption, Count 4 common law trespass. The defendants are the City, the Mayor, the Treasurer, and the Assessor.

About 10 days after process is served, I get an e-mail from an attorney for the assessor’s insurer, offering us our $1637 to dismiss the lawsuit. In response, I note that ship had sailed–the opportunity to walk away that cheaply had been offered, and all we got was rude treatment in response. After suggesting that, at this point, it would require reimbursement of our filing fee ($400), sheriff’s fees for service of process (about $75), and payment of my attorney fees (which I estimate at more than $10K), I suggest he should make a more reasonable offer–had he come back with $5K or anything close to it, I’m pretty sure we’d have called it a day. But he refuses the bait, and no further settlement communication results.

A week later, attorneys hired by two insurance companies (one for the City, one for the assessor) appear and file answers that are pure, unadulterated pettifoggery (denying most everything, or claiming to know nothing, including about events in which their clients were directly and personally involved, but admitting the fact of putting the synagogue on the tax rolls). Recognizing from their answers I made some assertions that might be problematic if I try to prove them in court, I file an amended complaint (as permitted by the federal rules), and they refile essentially the same answers.

Under the federal rules, each party must now make “initial disclosures”. I do so carefully, with strict attention to the requirements of the rules, and amass photographs, documents, and affidavits (including 1 from the Chabad rabbi averring that, as an expert in synagogue operations, when he visited to take bookshelves and 2 shtenders a month or so before the assessor’s inspection, the interior and exterior looked to him like a fully functional synagogue). Their initial disclosures are intentionally obstructive and obfuscatory, and not at all what the rules require.

So now I file a motion for summary judgment, noting that, from what they have admitted, plus what they have failed to disclose about events in which they were directly involved, it is clear that we have a right to recover damages on each and every claim. They file answers to our motion which, again, suggest their attorneys got law degrees by mail from tRump University or a gumball machine. I promptly file a reply brief that blows their puerile arguments out of the water.

At this point the federal magistrate suggests that, before a ruling on our motion for summary judgment, an “early settlement conference” might be a good idea. I agree, provided the opposition is prepared to participate by tabling a serious settlement offer and not repeating anything like their prior de minimis and absurd proposal. This requires each side to supply the magistrate with details of its settlement posture, in confidence. We advise the magistrate our president wants $15K for her travails, and $5K each for Jim and his brother Jack (the widow, who lives in Wisconsin, has by now dropped out), plus $5000 for the synagogue, and my attorney fees. I compile a separate, detailed brief on attorney fees to which I attached details of the hours I’ve invested, which I provide both to the magistrate and opposing counsel.

By the time of the Zoom conference, I’m in Florida visiting my sister, so I participate from her lanai. My internet connection keeps crashing, but Jim and I soldier through, and we begin by offering to settle for $120K, plus $20,000 for my attorney fees . The magistrate returns to tell us they will offer $50K, but including my attorney fees. I point out to the magistrate that I am uncomfortable negotiating my attorney fees as part of a package deal, as that creates a conflict of interest. But the magistrate is insistent (he wants this case off his docket), so with Jim’s approval, noting that I have the $30,000 in actual damages in hand to fully satisfy my clients, I propose $70K for attorney fees, or $40K if they will apologize in writing for their mistreatment of the synagogue and its members. An hour later he returns with a 2nd counteroffer–$75K total ($60K to be paid by the assessor, $15K by the City), no apology. It’s late in the day, my clients really don’t want to continue the lawsuit (and based on what the magistrate has told me, I’m not savoring the prospect of trying to convince a UP and Western Michigan jury to award a bunch of money to Jews, or especially to an elderly Jewish lawyer with a J.D. from Yale Law School), so we accept, noting that the defendants outrageously prefer to have the taxpayers pay extra to settle in order to avoid apologizing (the magistrate says nothing, but gives me a knowing smile).

So, rather than pay $1637 (or less–I’m sure my people would have said “OK” if the City offered to refund half or so in response to the opening missive), the City and its assessor and their insurers and attorneys preferred to make an actual, federal case out of their own folly, and then pay $75,000 to make it go away. As Dave Barry would say, “I’m not making this up”. One usually expects that idiots, once represented by counsel, will moderate their idiocy, but these asshats decided instead to up the ante, with entirely predictable results. (I’m informed the Mayor reported to City Council that, because he had “held firm”, they were able to settle on “favorable terms”. I have no idea what happened to the city’s or assessor’s insurance premiums after that, or whether the City continues to use the same imbecile or his law firm as its regular attorney.) The magnitude of narishkeit is even worse than it appears–I’m familiar with municipal insurers, and there’s always a deductible for attorney fees, at least $10K if not more. So the City and the Chelmites in charge embarked on a course of action that was going to cost the treasury at least 6X as much in out-of-pocket attorney fees as we were requesting be refunded, the epitome of “We’re losing on every transaction, but we’re planning to make it up on volume.”

The president joined Jim and his brother in donating $5K each from the settlement to the non-profit (but I’m still glad I insisted that Jim and his brother both give me a dollar figure, rather than waive individual claims for damages). The synagogue’s $5K was disbursed to Jewish 501(c)(3) groups that the AKIC board selected. As with any good fairy tale, everyone (plaintiffs and idiots alike) lived happily ever after.


And to my wonderful friend, Allan Falk, I say, “Kol hakavod l’kha!”, You deserve full honor for your victory!

Understanding Jewish Orthodoxy As A New Religion

I recently received a request for comment on a proposed discussion as follows:

“We’ll talk about the new government in Israel and the declaration by Chief Sephardic Rabbi Yosef that Reform and Conservative Judaism is a new religion.”

The question makes perfect sense within an Orthodox context. Like many religions, Jewish Orthodoxy imagines itself to be the model of authenticity. It is no different than Roman Catholicism considering itself the only authentic repository of the Christian religion, or Protestantism claiming that resting authority in a Pope is a fundamental violation of Christian principles.

Orthodox Jews will usually point to various aspects of the way that non-Orthodox Jews observe their faith as some sort of “proof” that they are not authentically Jewish. Virtually all of these arguments fail for one overriding reason: Jewish Orthodoxy has departed from age-old methods of re-interpreting the religion. That departure is by almost any reasonable definition more serious than the violations they attribute to others.

Consider this: there is not the slightest doubt that the Torah applies the death penalty to any violation of the Sabbath that it deems a violation. So why are there so few executions among the Orthodox for violating the Sabbath? If you bother to raise the question, be prepared for wagon loads of nonsense in reply. The simple truth is that Judaism realized that it was mistake to apply such a harsh penalty for these infractions and over time eliminated the possibility. During the period when the rabbis assume the role of religious arbitration for those calling themselves Jews, virtually all capital punishment was abolished, and one sage opined that if a court (Beit Din) executed more than one person in 70 years it should be regarded as a corrupt court and abolished.

This modification of the religion of the Israelites continued throughout history. For any given community, there could be long periods of stasis punctuated by upheavel which required radical action and often, significant change.

Among the more significant instigators of change in Europe were new intellectual movements such as the Enlightenment. In Eastern Europe, many Jewish communities experienced new freedom through Emancipation. Whenever there is change, there is almost always resistance to change. Beginning in the early 1700s, some rabbis, especially in Ashkenaz, began to argue that there was so much turmoil in the world that age-old mechanisms for modifying Jewish practice (halakhah) could no longer be used. This was hardly the first time such calls had been heard. At the dawn of the Talmudic era, the Amoraim declared that many of the rules which had been used by the Tana’im to alter the halakhah could no longer be used because the newer generation of rabbis did not have the vast institutional memory that the Tana’im possessed and were therefore prone to making mistakes.

The notion that the changed experience in post-Medieval Europe was so much worse than earlier periods is absurd on its face. The fall of the First Temple, the Babylonian Exile, the fall of the Second Temple, the failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt, more than 1,500 years of persecution by Christians and Muslims–all this was not a problem requiring the abolition of rules for changing the halakhah, but somehow the Emancipation was?

It is that claim, the claim that the Jewish people and their leaders are now forbidden from making changes to the rules for things like Sabbath observance, is a new claim. This one argued by reactionaries who did not want to see change to those observances. Since this imposed a new regulation of practice which had not been the case in the prior two to three thousand years of Jewish practice, the religion which argues this, Jewish Orthodoxy, has to be understood as a new religious movement which differed from all that went before it.

The Reform movement was created by Jews who believed that the Reformation and the Enlightenment and Emancipation were opportunities to do what Jews have been doing since the inception of the faith–modify practice in accordance with the ways that Jewish people want to live. Conservative Judaism began as a reaction to Reform because some members of Reform thought things had gone too far. But that too is a part of the age-old dialectic. The insistence that no change to loosen halakhic strictures can be permitted is the more radical notion.

Today, Jewish Orthodoxy represents the smallest movement within Judaism–even in Israel. Of course, in a place like Israel, if people need or want to go to a synagogue, they often have little choice. Non-Orthodox synagogues exist in small numbers and for the most part in large metro areas. But merely because a person uses an Orthodox synagogue or prayer book–does that actually make them Orthodox? If that person drives on Shabbat, flicks lights on and off, doesn’t maintain separate meat and dairy dishes, is that person really Orthodox, or is the more accurate descriptor, “Reform”–meaning that while they like the traditions, they see no reason of faith not live as they choose.

We started this conversation mentioning Chief Rabbi Yoseph. Yitzhak Yosef.jpg Ask yourself, does this man dress like Moses? How about Rabban Gamli’el? Sa’adia? Maimonides? Notice that biblical personages wore the square garments on which the tassels were supposed to be affixed, but by choosing to wear clothing that looks like a different place in a different era, R. Yosef needs to wear a talit qatan to observe the mitzvah. And notice that the Torah never suggests this is permissible. But the Jews of a much later era wished to dress differently and so they adapted. In other words, they were Reform Jews.

For further reading, there is (of course) a vast scholarly literature on this topic. Remaining as one of the best is the masterpiece of Joseph L. Blau, Modern Varieties of Judaism, originally published in 1972. Blau was a student of Salo Whitmayer Baron, and taught at Columbia (where he Chaired the Department of Religion) for most of his career.

Helping Friends in Uganda

https://www.unicef.org/uganda/sites/unicef.org.uganda/files/styles/standard_banner/public/A56I0551.jpg?itok=sJVQTP8TFor several years now I’ve been sharing posts with several friends from Uganda. The nature of Facebook being what it is, this means that many of my friends have also become friends of Ugandans. While this is unremarkable, what it remarkable is that in recent weeks I’ve seen a significant increase in requests for financial aid from people claiming to be Ugandan Jews in deep distress. Several of these I know to have been fraudulent, and I’ve been forced to block several.

You might wonder why I have allowed myself to establish these “friendship” links. There are several reasons, but all of them relate to my status as an educator specializing in Jewish religion and history.

To the best of my knowledge, the oldest and unquestionably Jewish populations in sub Saharan Africa are in Ethiopia. Members of this community like to attribute their origin to the beginnings of the Israelite kingdoms. Although there is no certain explanation, the preponderance of scholarship is that the community dates to the Middle Ages (about 2,000 years after the era of David) when various Ethiopian tribes were aligning themselves with groups from Europe and Arabia who were establishing relationships and commerce with Ethiopia. Whatever the case may be, the world Jewish community, including Orthodox authorities in Israel, have long accepted the credibility of these Ethiopian claims to Judaism.

In much more recent history several African communities have shown an interest in being identified as Jews. Several of these are located in Uganda, probably the most famous of them calling themselves the Abayudaya. These various groups have had a tumultuous history of being accepted and then rejected by various Jewish and Israeli authorities. There can be no question that the members of the Abayudaya and others seek to observe Judaism in traditional Jewish ways, the only question is whether Israel might regard them as striving to obtain Israeli citizenship or Orthodox authorities quibbling over their Jewish heritage.

Many of these histories and issues are important to me both personally and professionally. That is why I have established Facebook “friendships” with a number of Ugandan and other African people.

Uganda is a poor country in general, and many of those who try to live a Jewish life are among the poorest. They clearly need financial assistance. But there is a huge problem–the number of con artists and scoundrels is too great to consider sending money to individuals. Not only does sending money mean that one might be giving it to a crook, but some of these will even use various tools to try to steal payment cards and checking account information.

What this means is that no one should ever consider sending money to an individual via Western Union, other payment systems, or using debit or credit cards. There is only one exception to this rule: someone you know in person and trust. If you have, perhaps, visited Uganda, or if you have met a Ugandan abroad and spent time with them, in other words, if you have some certainty that the person you are dealing with is a person you can trust, then it can be appropriate to use a wire service to help them out.

How can any of us help these African communities without risking our financial security? The answer is really the same as it is for our own countries. We need to find bona fide charitable organizations which are in the field working to help the people we care about. In the USA, we have services such as Guidestar and Charity Navigator to help with this chore. And many of the charities they cover have a presence internationally, so organizations covered by these agencies may be the safest way to help our Ugandan friends.

Since this comes up with me owing to the Jewish connection, it is reasonable to ask about charities such as United Jewish Appeal (UJA) which obviously have been created to aid Jews in distress around the world. I wish I could tell you that this is a great solution for Uganda, but unfortunately, it is not. UJA can get bogged down with the question of “Who is a Jew” (referred to above), and that can create road blocks for helping communities we’d like to support, but who have not passed muster with Israeli religious authorities. Nevertheless, UJA is a good organization which deserves Jewish support, and hopefully we can persuade our friends in UJA some day to consider helping folks such as the Abayudaya.

All this said, where should we donate besides the UJA? Some of our Ugandan friends have managed to mount “Go Fund Me” campaigns. If you’ve been corresponding with people and feel comfortable with them, this is at least a generally safe way to provide funds. “Go Fund Me” won’t do a thing to verify that the destination is truly charitable, but it is at least a safe way to send money. I strongly recommend using a credit card, not a debit card or check, if you choose to do this.

Aside from GoFundMe, here is a list of International charitable organizations which are active in helping people in Uganda:

One organization stands out as having great reviews wherever I’ve checked. The first URL is for the organization as a whole, the second is for their activities specifically in Uganda:


Global Giving is headquartered in the USA and is therefore subject to all the scrutiny of philanthropic organizations. It has outstanding performance recommendations from both Guidestar and Charity Navigator. What Global Giving does is provide the scrutiny necessary to guarantee that our contributions will be used thoughtfully for the purposes we intend. It does not manage projects in places like Uganda on it own, rather, it works with local organizations. If you go to the Global Giving website (below) you can choose from dozens of projects in Uganda. Searching on the keyword “Uganda” produced 293 projects deemed worthy of donation. Because you are donating to Global Giving, the money will reach the project you want to support without endangering your financial interests.

Originally the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund, UNICEF is now just the United Nations Children’s Fund. UNICEF  is the world’s largest providers of vaccines. The mission of UNICEF looks like a menu of items all precisely in the greatest need in Uganda: child health and nutrition, safe water and sanitation, quality
education and skill building, HIV prevention and treatment for mothers
and babies, and the protection of children and adolescents from violence
and exploitation. The USA branch of UNICEF is fully under the scrutiny of charitable organizations and is safe to donate to. UNICEF also has a headquarters for Uganda in Kampala, but when you press the “donate” button you are redirected to the USA offices. I couldn’t find a way to specify that I wanted my donation to benefit projects in Uganda, but I’ll do some additional research on that. Stay tuned.

For now, this is all the time I have, but I intend to return to this and add additional charities as I learn about them.


Honoring the Memory of Aryeh Seagull

On Wednesday, July 20, 2022, I stepped to the lectern in Congregation Kehillat Israel of East Lansing, Michigan, to celebrate the life of my friend Aryeh Seagull, who passed from this plane of existence a month before. Aryeh’s family asked that I speak on one of his favorite subjects, the rules of etiquette and practice which Jews believe must also be honored by non-Jews. What I hoped to accomplish was to demonstrate how seemingly simple questions about Jewish beliefs can lead to wrinkles within wrinkles, moving seamlessly through time and space, from the Bible to the Talmud to the Rambam, back and forth, motion without end.

The first question I posed to the congregation was, “When someone says that the Torah demands that non-Jews observe Jewish rules, what is your reaction?” After some interesting comments from the community, I noted that it was actually a trick question. The Torah knows nothing of Jews or non-Jews since those concepts developed long after its day. The Torah knows of Israelites and Judeans among other designations of the people living in the land. Other books of the Bible call the people “Hebrews.” But the term “Jew” developed long after the Torah was published. That means that if we are speaking one of the most ancient documents recognized by modern Judaism, we must ask whether that
document demanded any sort of behavior from the peoples who were not the recipients of the Torah according to the Torah’s own worldview.

As always, we are obligated to turn back to the sources. Before I do, let me set one issue aside. Christian theology demands that Scripture be taken seriously, and they have a doctrine which includes a quasi-legal status for this. It is the Christian claim that those who follow Christianity are the “New Israel.” As such, Christians view themselves as the inheritors of the requirements of the Torah. It would take us too far afield to discuss how Christians distinguish between rules that obligate them and those that no longer do. But I would caution my Jewish friends about this “picking and choosing” not to be too smug
about this unless you too want to consider yourself obligated to stone someone
to death. The question before us, however, is not whether Christians have somehow
replaced Jews as this “New Israel” but rather how Israelites and Jews viewed
the necessity of outsiders to obey the rules of the Torah.

Since the Bible is ill-equipped on its own to answer the question, it is natural as Jews that we turn to the foundation of the Jewish religion, the Talmud. And it is there that we will strike gold. One of the earliest documents of the rabbinic era, the Tosefta, contains the following statement (Avodah Zarah 9:4):


על שבע מצות נצטוו בני נח על הדינין ועל עבודת כוכבים ועל
גלוי עריות ועל שפיכות דמים ועל הגזל ועל אבר מן החי

The sons of Noah were given seven commandments: courts, idolatry, [blasphemy,] forbidden sexual relations, bloodshed, theft, and [consuming] the limb of a living animal.


What does the Tosefta mean by בני נח “the sons of Noah”?

This one does have a clear answer. The term ben adam (descendant of Adam)
obviously means “everyone.” But as the Torah lays out the story of the history
of people-kind, b’nei adam lacked a few permissions that would later be allowed; for example, the consumption of meat. Noah represents a kind of second Creation, because according to the account, Noah’s family are the sole survivors of the Great Flood. Therefore, just as everyone is descended from Adam and Eve, so also everyone is descended from Noah. Interestingly from the perspective of our topic, Israelites are also
b’nei No’ah, but of course the difference is that Israelites have a few hundred extra requirements!

There are questions, always questions! What exactly were the commandments given to the
descendants of Noah? The obvious place to look is Genesis 9, where Noah’s
family exit the ark:


1 God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, “Be fertile and increase, and fill the earth. 2 The fear and the dread of you shall be upon all the beasts of the earth and upon all the birds of the sky — everything with which the earth is astir — and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hand. 3 Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses, I give you all these.


4 You must not, however, eat flesh with its life-blood in it.  5 But for your own life-blood I will require a reckoning: I will require it of every beast; of man, too, will I require a reckoning for human life, of every man for that of his fellow man! 6 Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in His image did God make man.


7 Be fertile, then, and increase; abound on the earth and increase on it.” 8 And God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9 “I now establish My covenant with you and your offspring to come, 10 and with every living thing that is with you — birds, cattle, and every wild beast as well — all that have come out of the ark, every living thing on earth. 11 I will maintain My covenant with you: never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” 

12 God further said, “This is the sign that I set for the covenant between me and you, and every living creature with you, for all ages to come. 13 I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall serve as a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth, and the bow appears in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant
between me and you and every living creature among all flesh, so that the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16 When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures, all flesh that is on earth.  17 That,” God said to Noah, “shall be the sign of the covenant
that I have established between me and all flesh that is on earth

Understand that “all flesh” must include everyone, not just Israelites. What commandments does God require of “all flesh”? Here’s my list:

Be fertile and increase

Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses, I give you all these.

You must not, however, eat flesh with its life-blood in it. [Should this really be 3, or is it part of 2?]

Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.


I see 3 or maybe 4 rules that apply to Noah’s descendants, at least here in this most direct
passage. But how do these stack up against the rules we just learned from the Tosefta?


Rule #1 isn’t even included in the Tosefta!

Rule #2 isn’t in the Tosefta, unless you join it to #3, which is definitely there.

Rule #4 is in the Tosefta as it rules that b’nei noah are forbidden from “bloodshed.”


You can stretch rule #4 if you want to include courts of justice by arguing that it would be
hard to enforce rule #4 without them.


Now, I must do a bit of a dodge, just for the sake of our time together. Various other rules, such as the condemnation of blasphemy, are derived from other texts in the Torah–often by torturous manipulation. I’ll leave those for a different day.

Have we ever found a situation where our sources all agree about something? Are there really the same seven everywhere, and are there only seven? The Talmud, tractate
Sanhedrin, picks up the theme:


תנו רבנן שבע מצות נצטוו בני נח דינין וברכת
השם ע”ז גילוי עריות ושפיכות דמים וגזל ואבר מן החי


Our Rabbis taught: The b’nei Noah received seven commandments: [set up] courts of justice; to refrain from blasphemy, idolatry; sexual depravity; bloodshed; robbery; and eating flesh cut from a living animal. (Sanhedrin 56)


Yes, those are the same seven, more-or-less, as we saw in the Tosefta. But wait, there’s more!


תנו רבנן שבע מצות נצטוו בני נח דינין וברכת השם ע”ז
גילוי עריות ושפיכות דמים וגזל ואבר מן החי רבי חנניה בן (גמלא) אומר אף על הדם מן
החי רבי חידקא אומר אף על הסירוס רבי שמעון אומר אף על הכישוף רבי יוסי אומר כל
האמור בפרשת כישוף בן נח מוזהר עליו (דברים יח, י) לא ימצא בך מעביר בנו ובתו באש
קוסם קסמים מעונן ומנחש ומכשף וחובר חבר ושואל אוב וידעוני ודורש אל המתים וגו’
ובגלל התועבות האלה ה’ אלהיך מוריש אותם מפניך ולא ענש אלא אם כן הזהיר רבי אלעזר
אומר אף על הכלאים מותרין בני נח ללבוש כלאים ולזרוע כלאים ואין אסורין אלא בהרבעת
בהמה ובהרכבת האילן


R. Hanania b. Gamaliel said: Also not to partake of the blood drawn from a living animal. R. Hidka added emasculation. R. Simeon added sorcery. R. Yose said: The heathens were prohibited everything that is mentioned in the section on sorcery. For example: There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or daughter to pass through the fire, or that uses divination, or a fortune teller, or an enchanter, or a witch, or a charmer, or a consulter with ghosts, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For all that do these things are an abomination to the Lord: and because of these abominations the Lord  your God does drive them [Canaanites] out from before you. R. Eleazar added the forbidden mixture in plants and animals: now, they are permitted to wear garments of mixed fabrics of wool and linen and sow diverse seeds together; they are forbidden only to hybridize heterogeneous animals and graft trees of different kinds.


How many now? You do the math, it’s beyond me!

Let us now move a few centuries ahead to the time of Moses Maimonides, familiarly known as “Rambam” in Jewish conversation. In hisencyclopedia of Jewish practice (halakhah), he writes:

משֶׁה רַבֵּנוּ לֹא הִנְחִיל הַתּוֹרָה וְהַמִּצְוֹת אֶלָּא
לְיִשְׂרָאֵל. שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (דברים לג, ד) “מוֹרָשָׁה קְהִלַּת יַעֲקֹב”.
וּלְכָל הָרוֹצֶה לְהִתְגַּיֵּר מִשְּׁאָר הָאֻמּוֹת. שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (במדבר טו, טו)
“כָּכֶם כַּגֵּר”. אֲבָל מִי שֶׁלֹּא רָצָה אֵין כּוֹפִין אוֹתוֹ לְקַבֵּל תּוֹרָה
וּמִצְוֹת. וְכֵן צִוָּה משֶׁה רַבֵּנוּ מִפִּי הַגְּבוּרָה לָכֹף אֶת כָּל בָּאֵי הָעוֹלָם
לְקַבֵּל מִצְוֹת שֶׁנִּצְטַוּוּ בְּנֵי נֹחַ. וְכָל מִי שֶׁלֹּא יְקַבֵּל יֵהָרֵג.
וְהַמְקַבֵּל אוֹתָם הוּא הַנִּקְרָא גֵּר תּוֹשָׁב בְּכָל מָקוֹם. וְצָרִיךְ לְקַבֵּל
עָלָיו בִּפְנֵי שְׁלֹשָׁה חֲבֵרִים. וְכָל הַמְקַבֵּל עָלָיו לָמוּל וְעָבְרוּ עָלָיו
שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר חֹדֶשׁ וְלֹא מָל הֲרֵי זֶה כְּמִן הָאֻמּוֹת:

Moses our Teacher did not bequeath the Torah and the Commandments to anyone but to Israel, as it says, “the Heritage of the Congregation of Jacob” (Deut. 33:4), and to anyone from the other nations who
wishes to convert, as it says, “as you, as a convert” (Numbers 15:15). However, no one who does not want to convert is forced to accept the Torah and the commandments. Moses our Teacher was commanded by the Almighty to compel the world to accept the commandments of the b’nei No’ah. Anyone who fails to accept them is executed. Anyone who does accept them upon himself is called a resident alien
[or: convert] who may reside anywhere. He must accept them in front of three wise and learned Jews. However, anyone who agrees to be circumcised and twelve months have past and he was not as yet circumcised is no different than any other member of the nations of the world. [Rambam, Yad, Melakhim, 8:10]


Before I comment on this, we should also look at a similar situation which is found two short chapters later:


שְׁנֵי עַכּוּ”ם שֶׁבָּאוּ לְפָנֶיךָ לָדוּן בְּדִינֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל
וְרָצוּ שְׁנֵיהֶן לָדוּן דִּין תּוֹרָה דָּנִין. הָאֶחָד רוֹצֶה וְהָאֶחָד אֵינוֹ
רוֹצֶה אֵין כּוֹפִין אוֹתוֹ לָדוּן אֶלָּא בְּדִינֵיהֶן. הָיָה יִשְׂרָאֵל וְעַכּוּ”ם
אִם יֵשׁ זְכוּת לְיִשְׂרָאֵל בְּדִינֵיהֶן דָּנִין לוֹ בְּדִינֵיהֶם. וְאוֹמְרִים לוֹ
כָּךְ דִּינֵיכֶם. וְאִם יֵשׁ זְכוּת לְיִשְׂרָאֵל בְּדִינֵינוּ דָּנִין לוֹ דִּין תּוֹרָה
וְאוֹמְרִים לוֹ כָּךְ דִּינֵינוּ.


As to two idolators [perhaps meaning non-Jews] appearing before you to be judged in accordance with laws of Israel and wishing to be judged in accordance with the Torah, we do so. If one wishes to be judged so and the other not, he is not compelled to be judged except by their own laws. If an Israelite and an idolator appear before us and we can decide in favor of the Israelite in accordance with their laws, we judge them in
accordance with their laws and we say to him, ‘this is your law’. But if the Israelite has merit in accordance with our Law, we judge him by Torah Law and tell him ‘This is our Law’.


וְיֵרָאֶה לִי שֶׁאֵין עוֹשִׂין כֵּן לְגֵר תּוֹשָׁב אֶלָּא
לְעוֹלָם דָּנִין לוֹ בְּדִינֵיהֶם. וְכֵן יֵרָאֶה לִי שֶׁנּוֹהֲגִין עִם גֵּרֵי תּוֹשָׁב
בְּדֶרֶךְ אֶרֶץ וּגְמִילוּת חֲסָדִים כְּיִשְׂרָאֵל. שֶׁהֲרֵי אָנוּ מְצֻוִּין
לְהַחֲיוֹתָן שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (דברים יד, כא) “לַגֵּר אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ תִּתְּנֶנָּה


It seems to me that we do not do this with a ger toshav [resident alien, sometimes translated as a
potential convert], but we always judge him by his own laws. And it also seems to me that we treat gerei toshav with respect and consideration, as we would an Israelite. Recall that we are required to keep sustain him, as it says, “to the stranger who is within your gates you shall give it [meat that Israelites
may not consume], that he may eat.” [Deut. 14:21].


From this discussion, it is clear that Maimonides is using the term b’nei No’ah differently from the other sources we have examined. Here, b’nei No’ah are not all non-Israelites,
but rather the special class of people who are in the process of or have already accepted membership in the community of Israel. Until now, we have imagined that there are two kinds of people: Israelites and non-Israelites. But in the view of the Rambam, there are three: Israelites, non-Israelites, and b’nei No’ah. The existence of a kind of middle group provides reasons for explaining certain principles of the administration of the courts of justice.


We have seen the evolution of a concept, changing and evolving with the circumstances in which Israelites and Jews have foundthemselves over thousands of years. We have only touched on many of the ideas which describe how different generations viewed the need to consider the proper way that nations should interact with one another. Maimonides continues in a way that is so fitting for all of us:


וְזֶה שֶׁאָמְרוּ חֲכָמִים אֵין כּוֹפְלִין לָהֶן שָׁלוֹם
בְּעַכּוּ”ם לֹא בְּגֵר תּוֹשָׁב. אֲפִלּוּ הָעַכּוּ”ם צִוּוּ חֲכָמִים לְבַקֵּר חוֹלֵיהֶם
וְלִקְבֹּר מֵתֵיהֶם עִם מֵתֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וּלְפַרְנֵס עֲנִיֵּיהֶם בִּכְלַל עֲנִיֵּי
יִשְׂרָאֵל מִפְּנֵי דַּרְכֵי שָׁלוֹם. הֲרֵי נֶאֱמַר (תהילים קמה, ט) “טוֹב ה’
לַכּל וְרַחֲמָיו עַל כָּל מַעֲשָׂיו”. וְנֶאֱמַר (משלי ג, יז) “דְּרָכֶיהָ
דַרְכֵי נֹעַם וְכָל נְתִיבוֹתֶיהָ שָׁלוֹם”:


Our Sages have said “We do not double our greeting, “Shalom” [in other words, we do not say, “Shalom, Shalom!”]. This refers to the idolators, but we do so with a ger toshav [resident alien]. But note that even with regard to idolators, our Sages have commanded us to visit their sick and bury their dead along with Jewish dead and sustain their poor along with the poor of Israel is for the “sake of peace.”


In other words, while some reservation must be made for our relationship to someone who does not honor God, nevertheless, we are obligated to treat them all with common decency.


And he concludes in a way that is so appropriate to our honoring Aryeh Seagull, “We act charitably to all as the Psalmist says, “God is good to all, and God’s compassion is expressed in all God’s
[Psalms 145:9] And Proverbs says [3:17],


“Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her pathways lead to peace.”


No photo description available.

Aryeh with his beautiful bride, Elizabeth

[1] Biblical quotations are adapted from several versions, mostly the New Jewish Publication Society, with some emendation by me.

Language of the Jewish Marriage Contract (Ketubah)

At a recent Jewish wedding I attended, I was startled by the reading of the Jewish marriage contract because it was written in Hebrew rather than the traditional Aramaic text. After the ceremony I asked the rabbi who had conducted the service why the document was in Hebrew since Jewish practice, halakhah, required the Aramaic. He replied that there is no such halakhah.

Of course, being the stubborn cuss that I am, I had to check the sources and lo and behold, I found that he is correct, there is no such halakhah.This was a bit disconcerting to me since whenever I have discussed the ketubah in recent years, I have usually mentioned this apparently non-existent rule.

My knowledge of the customs of the ketubah is one of several topics that I owe to one brief stint of study with an Orthodox teacher, Rabbi Steven Roth, who was one of the last graduates of the Jews College of London. Let me hasten to say that I am not asserting he taught me incorrectly, I’m sure I just didn’t quite understand his teaching now some 50 years ago. And certainly, most of what I recall from that teaching is completely accurate.

While we’re on the subject of rules, we should acknowledge that there does not necessarily have to be a law for a practice to be considered mandatory. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the head covering, kippah or yarmulke that Jewish men wear especially when entering a synagogue or engaging in prayer. Many might be surprised to learn that nowhere do we find any written requirement for this practice, and yet try to find an Orthodox or Conservative congregation which does not insist on it. In its early decades, one way Reform congregations demonstrated their difference from tradition was by discouraging the kippah in synagogue, but in more recent times, congregations have returned to the practice of encouraging it.

While there is no documented halakhah demanding that the ketubah be written in Aramaic, you’d be hard pressed to find any ketubot written in any other language until recent decades. The standard terminology is recorded in various sources, always in Aramaic. And the Talmud explains the use of Aramaic in the following way: Since this is a document which is intended to protect the rights of the wife in a marriage, it is very important that it be written in the language the wife will understand. And in the period and place where this conversation took place, Aramaic was the lingua franca, the common tongue.

In recent decades, there has been a change, but it’s a change that I think reflects a certain sensibility that is remote from the question of the marriage document itself. Part of the reason for this is that the ketubah simply does not mean what it once did to Jewish women. There are other mechanisms which are far more important in protecting the well-being of marriage partners in most of the Jewish world than the ketubah. For this reason, the ketubah has become more of an objet d’art than an actual contract.

The ketubah was written in Aramaic because that was the language a woman could understand in the places and times where the ketubah was developed, and Hebrew was a language which most women did not understand. But today, a Jewish woman is more likely to understand Hebrew than Aramaic. Beyond that, the spread and importance of Zionism has led to a new focus on Hebrew as the central language of all Jews. It is therefore understandable that especially in non-Orthodox settings, we are seeing a proliferation of ketubot written in Hebrew.

But there is a strong irony in what has happened. If we understand the spirit that motivated those who created the ketubah, if we are not going to write it in Aramaic, then we should be writing it in the language the wife (or partner) knows best–the language of the land. In America, most ketubot should therefore be written in English if they are not going to be written in Aramaic since, after all, even a knowledgeable person will understand their native language better than Hebrew. Paleo-Hebrew alphabet - Wikipedia

There is at least one cultural reason to suggest why this is unnecessary and Hebrew versions might be acceptable in many Jewish communities. That is if we understand that the ketubah is no longer considered an important part of the legal protections for the wife. If the ketubah is merely ceremonial, then it no longer matters whether the woman can understand it or not. And Hebrew is certainly as good as Aramaic for creating art work. There is one more irony to this story, however. In fact, the alphabet (alef-bet) used to create Hebrew writing today is not, in fact, Hebrew, but rather Aramaic writing–brought back from Aramaic speaking lands by the Judeans returning from Exile. So I guess Aramaic gets the last laugh.

Student Days at Tel Aviv U

Okay, it’s time for me to reprise my personal favorite story of the Winter season.

It was 1973 and I was a first-year grad student at Tel Aviv University. I entered Israel on a tourist visa, and the Yom Kippur War made a bit of a mess of my various legal status papers. I had to get some sort of U.S. documentation that would allow me to convert my tourist visa to student status. Having already volunteered for the IDF I could have just declared Israeli citizenship, but then there would have been other complications…

Tel Aviv University is not actually in Tel Aviv–it is in a suburb called Ramat Aviv, and it can take awhile by bus to get from campus to anywhere in the rest of the city. I waited for a good time to schedule the trip and then one sunny winter morning, I set out. I took the bus from Ramat Aviv to the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv, and then another up the Mediterranean coast which stopped just a few blocks from the American Consulate.

Now, I had been looking forward to this trip for some time because it was well known that the American consulate had a cafeteria open to U.S. citizens which served the best hamburgers in Israel. These days that’s no longer true–Israel has turned into quite the foodie haven and there are lots of places to get great hamburgers. But not in 1973.

After my hour-long journey I trudged up the few steps of the porch of the Consulate and tugged on the door. It was locked! A sign was posted that announced, “Merry Christmas.” Being in Israel, I had forgotten what December 25 might mean to a U.S. Consulate!

Oh well, I had to satisfy my hunger with a perfectly excellent felafel sandwich and start the hour-long journey back to Ramat Aviv. My visa–and hamburger–would have to wait for another day. Closed for Christmas

O Hanukkah Bush, O Hanukkah Bush!

Time to remind ourselves about this chestnut (roasting on an open fire).

One of my dear friends on social media after peering at a photo I posted while at my daughter’s family exclaimed, “Is that a Hanukkah bush?!” Indeed it is, I replied, and why not?

A few facts. It can’t be denied that Jews of my parents’ generation saw “Christmas trees” as Christian and discouraged their use within their communities. While that can’t be denied, in fact, there is nothing I can think of that makes a Christmas tree Christian other than the sorts of ornaments one might hang on one–such a cross, or placing a Nativity scene somewhere in the display. The tree itself is just a tree, and almost certainly represented some form of Winter worship or expectations of Spring among the Pagan communities of northern Europe long before they were Christianized.

We can’t be exactly sure about when Jesus was born, but we can say that according Christian Scripture, it was not on Christmas. The correct date cannot be known without additional evidence appearing, but almost all of those who have written on the topic place the event either in the Fall or Spring. From a Jewish perspective, that would suggest either at the time of the Fall or Spring festivals. December 25 was not chosen until centuries after the lifetime of Jesus. A historian and religious skeptic such as myself would argue that this was important to take people’s minds off of a very popular Pagan celebration, namely Saturnalia.

Now, many of my Jewish friends are convinced that the date of Hanukkah is reliably the 25th of Kislev, roughly December. As always, it’s much more complicated than that. First of all, those Jews who would become the basis for modern Judaism despised the Hasmoneans. Far from “liberators” they saw this dynasty as the very embodiment of “Greek” civilization–the very culture against whom Judas Maccabeas supposedly fought! It appears that they invented the story of the oil which lasted for 8 days to replace a festival honoring the Maccabean kings which they had decreed to usurp the authority of Solomon who Scripture says celebrated the dedication of the first Temple with a week-long celebration. 1 Kings 8:66 describes this event and says that the people were dismissed on the eighth day. And so we get eight:

 בַּיּ֤וֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי֙ שִׁלַּ֣ח אֶת־הָעָ֔ם וַֽיְבָרֲכ֖וּ אֶת־הַמֶּ֑לֶךְ וַיֵּלְכ֣וּ לְאָהֳלֵיהֶ֗ם שְׂמֵחִים֙ וְט֣וֹבֵי לֵ֔ב עַ֣ל כָּל־הַטּוֹבָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֙ר עָשָׂ֤ה יְהוָה֙ לְדָוִ֣ד עַבְדּ֔וֹ וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל עַמּֽוֹ׃

And on the 8th day, (Solomon) released the people and they praised the king and returned to their God glad and rejoicing in the all the good that the LORD had done for David his servant and for Israel his people.

I would suggest that the placement of this holiday in December was, just like their Christian contemporaries, a way to usurp the Pagan festivals common at the time of the year when the Sun mysteriously signals it’s triumph over Winter by lengthening it’s days. December 25th, by the way, is probably the date when most people could notice a change after the Winter Solstice.

Personally, I don’t see much danger of a return by either Jewish or Christian religious communities to Paganism, and therefore I don’t have much of a problem with either or both groups celebrating the return of the Sun by decorating a tree.

Now, in my family, we have to add another, important fact. Clara and Alexander’s dad is a renowned expert on trees. So much so that as I write this he has the position of Assistant Director of the National Forest Service for the region of the USA from Maine to the Mississippi river, north of the Ohio. So of course there is going to be a decorated Winter tree in their home!

Having said that, take a look at the ornament that tops this tree. Hint: it’s not a cross. But if you choose to have a cross on yours, good for you!

I hope all my Christian friends will have the most joyous of holidays, and if my Jewish friends want to steal the idea of a tree, nothing wrong with it! Merry Hanumas!

Hanumas Tree

Love Malcolm Tree of Life

Retirement in These United States

My annual “Would you like to review your retirement account” message arrived from one of my retirement plans today. This is my cue to post a reflection or two on the state of retirement in these United States. The first thing anyone should know about retirement is that if you’re not dirt poor, you need to have a reliable, as unbiased as possible, financial advisor. For me, that means a person in the employ of my investment company who does not earn a penny in commission from servicing my account. He also happens to know a lot.

The second thing is to wonder why you should pay any attention to anything I have to say. Quite possibly you shouldn’t. But I do have more expertise than most folks. Some of you might recall that when I left grad school at UC-Berkeley, I entered the full-time employ of the B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundation (Berkeley). They hired me to teach biblical Hebrew part-time, and to fill out the rest of a full-time job, I became their accounting assistant. To do that, I enrolled in courses at a local community college so as to be at least one level better than flat-out ignorant.

The retirement program at Berkeley Hillel was a joke. And not a very funny one. To be fair, it was not unlike programs offered by many non-profits and small businesses. The folks that designed the program operated on the assumption that few people would actually spend their careers with Hillel or B’nai B’rith, so they used a plan where the employee paid nothing and pretty much received nothing in return. Among the exceptions to the notion that employees would not stay for their careers were the Foundation directors, many if not most of whom were rabbis, and that presented a number of problems to the administration because in the USA, clergy who wish to take advantage of tax breaks offered solely to clergy must be independent contractors. B’nai B’rith created a plan which took good care of these “independent contractors” and the rest of us got the sense we should look elsewhere for a career.

My solution to this problem was to create for our local staff our own retirement plan separate from that of the national organization. I received many communications from the national office telling me I couldn’t do this, but as it turned out I could and I did. As part of my job I needed to deal with the fact that our building was not owned by national Hillel, but rather by a local corporation. At the time that I started working on this, the corporation had become inactive. There was no one on its Board of Directors, and I suggested to our Director that this was dangerous because if it were discovered, we could be the subject of a hostile takeover. We repopulated the Board, and then the Board passed a resolution authorizing us to create our own retirement program. The plan we created did not conflict with the one run by the national office, it was supplemental to it. All of our contributions were voluntary to the maximum permitted by law.

As I mentioned, the national office plan was quite generous to the rabbis and a few other long-term employees. So generous that it was forced into bankruptcy in the 1990s and taken over by the Federal government agency which manages bankrupt retirement plans. I left Hillel in 1988 after 9 years of full-time employment. I was “100% vested” in the national retirement plan. To see how little that means, on my separation the pension plan offered me a “buyout.” They would give me $500 in return for releasing them from their obligation to pay me a pension. That’s what 9 years of full-time employment was worth to me. Please keep in mind that 9 years is about 25% of what most people will spend in their work lives. My response was, “Keep your $500, I’ll see what the pension is worth when I reach retirement age.” I actually didn’t expect to collect a dime once I learned of the bankruptcy, but as it turns out, I am receiving that pension. Since I turned 66, I’ve been getting $39/month from the federal agency that bails out bankrupt plans. Now, it’s practically nothing, and it’s subject to income tax even so, but I have already collected a lot more than $500!

In the meantime, the other retirement plan I helped design is doing very well. On separation from Hillel, I turned it into an IRA (Individual Retirement Account) and the principle is sufficient to pay me about $1,000 a month now. That’s because unlike the B’nai B’rith program, my nine years of contributions were allowed to grow like any other investment. And again, in the context of employment that represents about 25% of my work life, that’s a reasonable return on my investment.

When I left Hillel, I became an administrative employee of the University of Michigan, an organization with a very good retirement plan for every employee. As a department manager, among my responsibilities were training new employees and helping existing employees choose the retirement options that would best serve them. Of course that often meant referring them onto the University offices that specialized in employee education, but over my 25 years in administrative service, I did make it a point to stay current on retirement issues.

That brings me (at last!) to the reason I am writing today. One of the most common pieces of advice you will hear about collecting Social Security is that you should wait as long as possible before you file for it. However well-meaning the advisors and columnists might be, this can be very bad advice.

Social Security is a form of annuity. What most people don’t understand about this is that that means it has an end-point—usually when we die. When we die, Social Security pays out a pittance to (partially) cover funeral costs and the following month, it simply ends. This is different from many other types of savings, investment, and retirement accounts. Of course, you are free to purchase many sorts of annuities which, like Social Security, will terminate on death. But most other types of investment have no such end point. For example, if you own a rental property and make use of the rent you receive to supplement your retirement income, when you die, your heirs receive that rental property. If you have your retirement invested in the stock market, you receive both the interest and any gains the stock might earn and again, those shares pass to your heirs if you have not spent them before death.

Social Security rewards you for delaying accepting payment by increasing your monthly check for each year you delay. But the part they and many advisors don’t tell you is that should you lose the lottery and die before your mid-80s, you will actually collect less than you would have had you declared earlier. Suppose your Social Security check would be $2,000 when you turn 62. If you delay to the “full retirement age” of 67 (say), the check will rise to something like $2,500 per month. But remember that you have not collected $120,000 you would have received between ages 62 and 67. The additional $500/month you receive will not equal that $120,000 you have given up for 20 years! Now these are all round numbers and guesstimates, you have to do the math that precisely applies to yourselves to see when you will cross that finish line.

The first clear and convincing reason to take your Social Security at the earliest possible time is if you have good reason to believe that you will not live into your 80s. Possibly a serious cardiac or cancer diagnosis, perhaps just your knowledge of family longevity.
The second obvious reason is because you are unemployed or underemployed and simply need the money to live on. That is unfortunate because that is a case where delaying would give you a better retirement, but in the words of the great sage, “It is what it is.”

The third reason to begin accepting payment, even if you think there’s a good chance you’ll make it into your 90s and even if you don’t need immediately need the funds, is if you have good self-discipline and are capable of investing rather than spending the money. In most scenarios, if you take your Social Security and use it to invest in the markets or perhaps purchase rental property, you will do better—and maybe far better—than if you allow the government to hold on to it.

This is how I reasoned things for myself. My parents both lived into their 80s. I’m not a smoker and other than a bit of high blood pressure I have no significant health issues. Although there are no certainties in this life, those factors argue that I am likely to make it into my mid-80s. Therefore I decided against taking my Social Security when I first became eligible. I figured it would be nice to get those enhanced payments by delaying it. When I reached my mid-60s, I revisited this decision. I had now arrived at what the Social Security Administration terms “full retirement age.” (That was 67 for me, I believe it has now moved up to 68 for people contemplating retirement now.) Still, if I wait even longer (up to age 72) those monthly checks would grow even larger. And because I and my spouse are still working, we didn’t need the money.

But at that point, doing some math, I decided we’d be better off if I started to collect. The reason is not because we need the money for current expenses, but rather because I believe I can find better investments than the annuity represented by Social Security. We already had the usual spectrum of investment accounts held by middle-class Americans, so I bought rental property and I use Social Security to pay down the principle on those rental units. What that means is that when I do finally retire, we will own the rental units which will then be providing a steady income on their own. And as I said above, when I pass on, I’ll have something to pass on to my children.

The proverbial “bottom line” here is not that I made the best possible decision nor that you should do what I did. The advice I am giving you is to set aside simplistic answers from places like the Social Security Administration itself, or your H and R Crock tax adviser. Make sure you find a real expert, and carefully vet the advice you receive. There is no “one size fits all” solution—so make sure you understand the many alternatives that lie before you.

Abortion Rights in the News Again

This is a topic I had hoped to avoid writing about, but it seems that the old saw about forgetting history—that we are doomed to repeat it—is apropos once again. As I write today, the Supreme Court appears likely to severely curtail, if not eliminate, the right of a woman to control her own body. This issue has been important to me for most of my adult life. The first time I ever marched in a demonstration was in Madison, Wisconsin in the Fall of 1969 soon after arriving at the University for my freshman year. A female friend asked me to accompany her to protest the Wisconsin law which prohibited abortion. We marched with coat hangers to symbolize the extremes to which some women had gone to avoid childbirth. While I had not thought much about the issue before I got to college, this event sparked an interest which has continued throughout my life. And while I did not know it at the time, something that turned up a little bit later in my life brought it front and center to my attention.

As I made my way through graduate school at UC-Berkeley, I started to get notices from my contacts at the Hillel Foundation about the availability of testing for Tay-Sachs disease. And because of this notice, I looked into the nature of this disease. I discovered that it is an ailment so horrible as to truly be described as evil. It afflicts children from birth, and those children rarely survive their fourth birthday. Their every day is filled with misery and pain, and usually by the age of two they require 24 hour a day care. Few health plans cover all the needs that parents face. One parent will likely have to give up any idea of work and both parents (if indeed after some of this there are still two parents living with the child) will face lives filled with the screams of their child complicated by financial ruin.

The reason the program was being run out of Hillel was that this is a disease which is heavily concentrated in exactly two populations: the Cajuns of Louisiana and Canada, and Jews of Ashkenazi descent. It does also occur outside these populations, but extremely rarely. Hillel was a logical place to target testing for Jews of marriageable age.
I took the test and it came back positive for the gene that causes Tay-Sachs disease.

What that means is that if my spouse also carries the gene, we have a one-chance-in-four of having a child with the disease. Although Terri’s Irish/Danish/Dutch background suggested little chance of the gene, she underwent the test as a matter of caution, and both our children (since they might have inherited the gene from me) have been tested.

This also clarified a matter from my family history. My paternal grandmother Yetta, of blessed memory, brought 6 children into this world. Three of them survived into adulthood and immigrated to America. Three of them died in childhood. None of those survived to their second birthday. My father, being the last child, had no memory of his siblings, but the oldest sibling told me that she recalled unrelenting pain and horror they experienced. While there is no way to be certain that all three had Tay-Sachs, that does seem to be the likely conclusion here.

What does this have to do with the current abortion controversy? I hope most of my readers will understand that knowingly bringing a child into the world with a sentence of agony and certain death by age 4 would be an act of unbelievable cruelty. It is possible to test for Tay-Sachs in utero. But the earliest that can be done is via chorionic villi sampling in the 11th week of pregnancy. This is a somewhat risky procedure because it involves removing a part of the placenta. A much safer test can be done sampling amniotic fluid, but that cannot be done before the 16th week of pregnancy.

In the case of the new laws in Texas, for example, this means that the State is essentially demanding that parents of Tay-Sachs children forego abortion and bring those children into the world, to face unrelenting agony for essentially every day of their short lives.

We need to find a way to make people understand that intruding the State into personal decisions like this is a violation of human rights.