Rabbi Backman is a participating columnist on the Glendale News Press, the La Cañada Valley Sun and the Burbank Leader weekly feature "In Theory". Below are some of his recent columns. The above mentioned Times Community Papers are delivered daily with the Los Angeles Times. Copies can also be obtained free of charge at a number of newspaper stands throughout the city.Rabbi Backman also participates regularly in the Crescenta Valley Weekly "Spiritually Speaking" column.
January 5, 2014
Muslim Descrimination or Store Policy?
Question:British department store Marks & Spencer has apologized after a Muslim sales assistant refused to sell a customer a bottle of alcohol.
The customer, who hasn't been named, said, "I had one bottle of champagne, and the lady, who was wearing a head scarf, was very apologetic but said she could not serve me... I've never come across that before."
The checkout worker was said to have been "extremely apologetic" and asked the customer to wait for another worker to become available.
An M&S spokesman said, "Where we have an employee whose religious beliefs restrict food or drink they can handle, we work closely with our members of staff to place them in suitable roles... As a secular business we have an inclusive policy that welcomes all religious beliefs whether across our customer or employee base."
Was M&S in the right? Or should a religious person be expected to go against their beliefs as part of their work?
Answer: People should never be expected to act against their religious beliefs as part of their work. At the same time, no person should accept a job that will, in the course of regular duties, contradict his or her beliefs. Why did this Muslim woman take a position at Marks & Spencer when she knew that the job requirements were at odds with the teachings of her faith? I do not work on Saturdays -- the Jewish Sabbath -- and would therefore never apply for a job that required me to work on that day.
There's another point I'd like to make as well. While Islamic law prohibits Muslims from drinking alcohol, people of other faiths do not have to abide by those same guidelines. By refusing to sell a bottle of champagne to a non-Muslim, the M&S employee was essentially imposing Islamic law upon the customer. In my opinion, this sets a dangerous precedent. We are not discussing universal morality here, but rather the specific laws that are meant for Muslims to follow. As a Jew, I only eat Kosher food products -- but I have no problem with non-Jews eating non-Kosher food. Jewish laws are for Jews, just as Islamic laws should be for Muslims, and so on. Compelling others to abide by your religious beliefs is wrong, and should not be tolerated.
If this were a scenario in which the employee was asked to do something extraordinary and unexpected in the workplace, then I would lean toward giving the employee the right to adhere to her religious beliefs. However, in this specific case, the Muslim woman accepted the job with M&S presumably knowing that she would need to sell alcohol as part of the normal requirements of her job. Since she knew this, and considering that the purchaser was not a Muslim, I would require her to sell the champagne or resign from that position.
Rabbi Simcha Backman
January 19, 2014
Why is Main Kampf so Popular?
Question:E-books have taken off in a huge way among the iPad- and Kindle-obsessed, but one electronic tome that's topping the charts -- both free and paid-for – is Adolf Hitler's “Mein Kampf,” the book of political writings by the Nazi leader published before he became dictator of Nazi Germany. It is currently the in the No. 1 spot on Amazon's Propaganda & Political Psychology section. On iTunes there are two versions available.
There are six versions of the book available electronically, and it's also available as a PDF. Chris Faraone, who wrote about its popularity on Vocativ.com, says that, much like “Fifty Shades of Grey,” “These are things that people would be embarrassed to read otherwise . . . Books that people would probably be a bit more embarrassed to read or display or buy in public, they are more than willing to buy on their Kindle, or iPads.”
The book's popularity has angered Jewish leaders. “While the academic study of Mein Kampf is certainly legitimate, the spike in ebook sales likely comes from neo-Nazis and skinheads idolizing the greatest monster in history,” World Jewish Congress CEO Robert Singer told ABC News.
Can you think of any reasons why “Mein Kampf” should be such an e-book hit?
Answer: I tend to agree with most observers who suggest that this phenomenon can probably be largely attributed to curiosity, but I still feel that some element of anti-Semitism is propelling these sales.
Sadly, demonization of Jews remains commonplace in almost all of the Middle East and even in much of Europe. This anti-Semitic environment often drives people to buy books like Mein Kampf. It is even more frightening to know that many young people who read Hitler's hate-filled words end up acting on their prejudice. As we have seen all too often, the results lead to harmful crimes against Jews, and sometimes even murder.
Following the Holocaust, the world promised "never again." But since then we have seen the world community fail to prevent genocide in places like Iraq, Bosnia, Cambodia, Rwanda, and most recently, Sudan. One has to question how much we have really learned from history’s painful lessons. Today, the arch-terrorists of Tehran threaten the Jewish state with annihilation. And barely 70 years after the Holocaust, Hitler--the worst butcher mankind has ever seen--is still idolized by many as some kind of hero.
Unfortunately, I am not at all shocked by this fact. Human nature does not change on its own. The same character traits that allowed for the slaughter of millions of innocent men, women, and children can still be found within our species. What really changes people is education. If we teach our youth to respect human life regardless of race, color, or creed, then we can hope for progress. If we replace ignorance and bigotry with knowledge and tolerance, our future looks bright. Otherwise, we are destined to witness endless waves of prejudice that will have tragic results for humanity.
Rabbi Simcha Backman
February 2, 2014
Praying for my team to win the Super Bowl?
Question:According to a study by the Public Religion Research Institute, “football fans are more likely than other sports fans to report praying to God (33 percent vs. 21 percent.) They also are more apt to believe their team has been cursed (31 percent vs. 18 percent), and to perform rituals before or during games (25 percent vs. 18 percent).”
With the Seattle Seahawks battling the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl this weekend and fans on both sides sending up prayers, do you think God will have a say in the outcome?
Answer: Of course I think that God will have a say in the outcome of the Super Bowl—just as he does with most everything else that happens in our wonderful world. What I'm not so sure of is whether the prayers of one side will actually be more effective than the other. After all, it really is only a game. And regardless of whether the Seahawks or the Broncos win, one thing is for certain: Americans will have a good time on Super Bowl Sunday, watching a great game and consuming tasty food with family and friends. And God is definitely happy when we are happy.
I also think that praying for our favorite team is a good practice since it accustoms us to conversing with God, which is an important part of our spiritual lives. Ultimately, if we train ourselves to talk to God, we will do so when the stakes are high and the need is real. At various times in our lives, we will encounter challenges that can potentially take us to a dead end or an insurmountable position. It is at these times that we need to remember that God is always listening and will readily lend us a helping hand or a shoulder to lean on. That is when prayer is most meaningful and provides us with a unique insight into this divine gift.
So to all those diehard fans who offer a prayer for their favorite team: may the force be with you. And whether or not your team wins, please have fun, enjoy the games, and keep up the prayer. I believe God likes it when we talk to Him, regardless of the topic.
Rabbi Simcha Backman
February 16, 2014
Is religion bad for marriage?
Question:Sociologists at the University of Texas and the University of Iowa write in the American Journal of Sociology that "Conservative religious beliefs and the social institutions they create .... increase divorce risk in the contemporary United States."
Others suggest that conservative Southern states have higher rates of divorce than the Northeast because the bluer region has lower rates of marriage. They further suggest that class is a big factor and that poverty contributes to family dysfunction.
Is religion bad for marriage?
Answer: The tenets of all major religions require followers to be faithful and respectful to their spouses, and they encourage the creation of a positive family nucleus based on moral values. How can these ideas be bad for marriage? The problem obviously does not lie in the religious beliefs, but in the lack of adherence to them. I would suggest that it is actually contemporary culture that is the primary culprit behind high divorce rates.
We live in an era where an incessant flow of Hollywood movies, TV shows, and popular music—along with constant access to social media and the Internet—is a central part of every young person’s life. Much of this media bombardment contains messages which are actually very harmful to a positive relationship. Movies often depict fairy tale scenarios of matrimonial bliss that fail to mention the hard work and continuous effort necessary to maintain a healthy marriage. Popular music stars frequently glorify promiscuity and violence against women. And the Internet and social media can be gateways to infidelity and pornography that can poison any marriage.
For those who want to avoid divorce and create stronger bonds with their spouses, I suggest that they become more cognizant of their religious beliefs and follow the principles of their faith closely. It is the combination of spiritual adherence, continuous engagement and effort, and avoiding the negative influences of popular culture that will help to ensure a happy, healthy marriage.
Rabbi Simcha Backman
March 2, 2014
Is the Arizona Legislature Discriminatory?
Question:Arizona lawmakers have approved a measure that would allow business owners to refuse service to gays and other groups if it is perceived to violate the practice and observance of the business owner’s religion.
Is it discriminatory against religious business owners to demand that they treat everyone equally? If business owners do discriminate based on their religious beliefs, should that discrimination be illegal?
Answer: I believe this proposed law is a very bad idea, and discrimination of this kind must never be legalized. While every business owner has a right to conduct their business as he or she sees fit, they should not be allowed to deny service to someone simply because of their sexual orientation. Businesses must treat everyone equally and cannot refuse to serve a customer simply because the customer’s views offend their religious beliefs. If this measure were to become law, what would stop a Christian fundamentalist from refusing to serve me, a Jew, because my belief system may contradict his?
The only exception I could envision would be in cases where a vendor is asked to directly promote a way of life or religious ritual that contradicts his own faith. For example, I would not expect a religious wedding planner to be forced to plan a gay wedding, any more than I would expect a Jewish carpenter to be compelled to build a wooden crucifix for a church. Both of these actions could be a direct affront to the sensitivities of the business owner, which deserve respect as well.
In the final analysis, our national dialogue needs to revolve more around respect, tolerance, and mutual understanding. I may not like someone's religious beliefs, but that does not give me a right to bully them into accepting my position. I may not agree with someone's lifestyle, but that in no way gives me license to discriminate against them. America needs sensible leaders who can find common ground upon which we can resolve these divisive issues. Discriminatory laws are not part of the solution, and I am troubled that Arizona’s legislators have given this bill serious consideration.
Rabbi Simcha Backman
March 9, 2014
Stopping Muslim Children from becoming Suicide Bombers
Question:The mayor of London wrote in a March 2 column in the Daily Telegraph that Muslim children who are at risk of radicalization by their parents are victims of child abuse and should be removed from their homes.
Mayor Boris Johnson says that such a move could stop the children from becoming “potential killers or suicide bombers,” but the Muslim Council of Britain cautions Johnson that his remarks risk flaming an anti-Muslim feeling.
What is your opinion of Johnson’s suggestion?
Answer: Who in their right mind would not remove a child from a home that encourages the child to become a suicide bomber? I think the mayor of London's suggestion is not only smart, but absolutely necessary. It is needed to save the lives of both the would-be Muslim bombers and their potential victims. What Mr. Johnson is proposing is a common sense solution to a very real problem that has already manifested itself in Britain and may become far more common if authorities don't step in to stop the madness of Muslim radicalization.
Furthermore, while I may understand the Muslim Council of Britain’s concern about stereotyping if it leads to public mistreatment of Muslims, I cannot understand how this group seems to downplay the welfare of Muslim children and the potential victims of suicide bombings. There is something very wrong with an organization or culture that preaches caution when innocent lives are at risk.
I applaud Mayor Johnson for taking this courageous step in dealing with the radicalization of Europe. I hope that leaders of other major European cities will learn from his example and enact regulations to halt the dangerous hate speech and invective which have become commonplace across the continent. Removing children from situations in which they are being indoctrinated to launch suicide attacks will not only spare the children from a horrible fate—it will remove the threat to the thousands of innocent civilians who would be their targets.
Rabbi Simcha Backman
March 30, 2014
Fundematalism and Its Impact on Religion
Question:Fred Phelps, the founder the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. who was known for his fire-and-brimstone anti-gay public protests –as many as 53,000 of them since 1991, according to church officials--died March 19 at the age of 84. What do you think will be his legacy, or impact on religion in 21st century America?
Answer: I believe that that Fred Phelps's legacy will be empty and his impact on religion in America will be nil. Phelps was a much-reviled figure who was rightfully and thoroughly denounced by practically every religious organization in the country. I suppose that most Americans perceived Mr. Phelps, his church, and his hateful antics as nothing more than a very bad joke.
However, there were some people who were terribly hurt by his madness and appalling protests. Certainly nothing positive came from his venomous anti-gay rhetoric. His church's demonstrations at military funerals were simply inexcusable; I cannot imagine the pain and suffering these displays must have caused the grieving families of our fallen heroes. I hope that his passing will bring some sort of closure to the pain he caused.
The Westboro Baptist Church represented the most extreme example of Christian fundamentalism gone awry in America. The only thing I can say to their credit is that at least they disseminated their vile message only through words and other forms of expression rather than resorting to violent actions. Perhaps the one constructive legacy that Fred Phelps could leave behind would be if Muslim extremists and other hate groups would take that page from his playbook and renounce all forms of violence once and for all.
Rabbi Simcha Backman
April 27, 2014
Enjoyment and Spiritual Fulfilment
Question:A young Italian nun with a powerful singing voice and engaging stage presence has been capturing the attention of millions of television viewers on “The Voice of Italy.” Her performance of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” knocked another female contestant off the Italian talent show on April 16. The 25-year-old Sister Cristina Scuccia said after winning accolades, “I’m excited, really thrilled. The fundamental thing is to have fun.”
Tell us what you believe the role of fun can play in a spiritually fulfilling life.
Answer: I believe that having fun within the context of a wholesome, religious lifestyle is perfectly acceptable. People need to feel good about life and experience joy, including its spiritual dimension. Fun that leads to a sense of fulfillment and happiness should be encouraged.
Judaism has an interesting take on happiness: although there is no Biblical commandment to be happy, happiness is a key to proper, positive adherence to all of the commandments. Conversely, there is no Biblical injunction against being depressed, but a person suffering from depression cannot function properly and find lasting religious fulfillment; therefore, a person with emotional troubles should seek proper assistance--medical or otherwise--to regain their balance.
It is true that fun can sometimes get out of hand, and a reckless pursuit of excitement can come at the expense of other essential elements of life. We need to be cognizant of the difference between healthy fun and hedonism that can lead to immoral acts. Often the line between the two can be thin.
As a rule, clergy and lay leaders should feel a responsibility to imbue the religious experience with a sense of fun and happiness. This is often the key to ensuring that people come to our houses of worship, participate fully, and find proper guidance. This is especially true for young people, who are being pulled in so many directions toward activities--both positive and negative--that seem exciting and fun. To keep our youth engaged with religious practice, we need to maintain a positive, uplifting atmosphere that offers a sense of joy and excitement.
Rabbi Simcha Backman
May 4, 2014
Religious Corporeal Punishment as Civil Law
Question:The Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, known as PAS, a political party with a strong base in the Malaysian state of Kelantan, pushed through the Syariah Criminal Code Enactment (II) 1993, which calls for hudud, or extreme corporal punishment when there is strong evidence of a crime to insure “justice and equality.” Only Muslims convicted of the crimes would pay with punishments that include, for example, the amputation of a thief’s hand. So far, the federal constitution has delayed enactment of the law, but its backers aim to remove all obstacles to its implementation in Kelantan by next year.
Tell us your thoughts about religious texts and beliefs being incorporated into civil laws.
Answer: I think there is a real danger when religious texts are taken literally and are not properly interpreted — especially if they are to become law. The Bible famously states that when punishing a person for a crime, it should be "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, and a foot for a foot." A simplistic interpretation of this verse would render us a rather barbaric society. However, rabbinical analyses of these lines explicitly assert that this phrasing is not to be taken literally. Rather, the words are a reference to financial compensation: if someone harms another person, Biblical principles require monetary compensation for the victim. Understanding this verse in any other way and then establishing it as law would create an extremely severe system of punishment that would be untenable and counter-productive.
Furthermore, based on the track record of Sharia law in other Muslim countries, I would be very wary of implementing these laws for fear of unintended consequences. Although current lawmakers may try to limit the extent of this corporal punishment, in reality there is a danger that it could ultimately spiral out of control and radicalize an entire nation. Therefore, I truly hope that the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party does not make this radical change and will instead maintain sensible laws that avoid brutality and focus on appropriate punishment, compensation, and rehabilitation.
Rabbi Simcha Backman
May 12, 2014
Institutionalized anti-Semitism at the United Nations
Question:Although over the years the relationship between Israel and the United Nations has been somewhat rocky due to the Palestinian issue, 32 nations, including the United States, in late July sent a letter to a U.N. committee asking that the body recognize Judaism's holiest day, Yom Kippur, as an official holiday. Presently the U.N. recognizes the Christian holidays Christmas and Good Friday and the Muslim holidays Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. It also sets aside the U.S. holidays New Year's Day, Presidents' Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day and Thanksgiving.
Give us your thoughts on whether or not Israel’s holiest day should be considered a United Nations official holiday.
Answer: Of course I feel very strongly that Judaism's holiest day, the Biblical holiday of Yom Kippur, should be recognized as an official United Nations holiday. This is especially true considering that the holidays of other major religions have been officially recognized by the world body. Unfortunately, however, this will probably never happen.
It won't happen for the simple reason that the United Nations has effectively institutionalized anti-Semitism. The fact that only 32 countries of the 193 represented at the UN signed on to this request is very telling. The reality is that 30% of UN member states are Islamic, and history has shown that they will demonize Israel and align themselves against its interests regardless of circumstance. Furthermore, a full 55% of UN-affiliated countries are either authoritarian dictatorships or despotic regimes that will not side with the sole democracy in the Middle East—a country which stands out as a bastion of liberty, freedom, and human rights.
Currently in the Middle East—among many other horrific conflicts—hundreds of thousands of women and children have been slaughtered in Syria, while the terrorist group ISIS marches across Iraq indiscriminately butchering innocents by the thousands. Meanwhile, Israel is singled out for international condemnation for protecting itself from an enemy that has sworn to destroy Israel and kill all Jews. What country on Earth would stand idly by as a ruthless enemy like Hamas fires thousands of rockets towards its civilian populations and tunnels into its sovereign territory to kill and abduct its citizens? Judging from the recent response of the United Nations, it seems that only Jews are not allowed to protect themselves from annihilation. This is anti-Semitism, pure and simple.
It is also shameful to see how these issues are manifesting themselves across Europe. A mere 70 years after the Holocaust, when 70% of Europe's Jews were murdered by the Nazis with the eager assistance of many local citizens, anti-Semitism has once again reared its ugly head. Major European cities are once more witnessing acts of hatred that target Jews.
So while I'm not especially hopeful that the United Nations will ever stand up for righteousness, morality, or justice, I am nevertheless reassured by the few democratic voices of the world, such as the United States and Canada, which have always been vocal advocates for honesty, decency, and the truth. The United States is steadfast in its support for her ally Israel despite the vicious diatribes and malicious acts of repressive regimes that seek to disparage the democratic Jewish state for no reason other than raw, anti-Semitic hatred. It is heartening to know that our great country will always stand by Israel and the virtues she represents.