Archive for ‘Jews & Judaism’

May 23, 2012

Are Orthodox Jews Diluting the Debate on Homosexuality and Judaism?

by Gedalyah Reback

Orthodox Jews are well aware of the issues homosexuals face, thank God. At least in Modern Orthodox circles, sympathy has become the main theme of the discourse on gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgendered Jews. Sympathy has picked up momentum in my short time living in the community. Without being able to relate, and only really being able to speak for myself though I think it applies across the community, there is an appreciation for the conflict so many people go through trying to balance religiosity with the way they are. Few think people are choosing to create personal conflict within themselves. The community has finally gotten the point.

Living as a gay man while trying to adhere to the constitution that is the body of Jewish Law is a dramatic and possibly a traumatic task. The experience is emotionally grueling and testing. The Jewish community, now indisputably among much of Orthodoxy, understands that, even if they have not reconciled this reality entirely with the religion they practice.

Dovetailing into another issue, speaking only on the intellectual side of things I’ve wondered how my generation is handling it theologically. The mere idea that thousands of people are gay, lesbian or otherwise through no choice of their own runs counter to the spirit of law. If a law can be legislated regulating its practice, that implies there is choice in the matter. But conventional wisdom right now states there is no choice in the matter of sexual orientation. Gay men have no option, so either they are exceptions to the rule or the rule is void. Personally, I don’t think my generation appreciates the dichotomy. My age demographic, maybe one among others, is ignoring this issue.

There has been a lot of talk about gay marriage in just the last month in the Jewish community, both because of Barack Obama’s public support for the idea and the sudden coming out of the closet by Jewish rapper Y-Love. The outpouring of support for Jordan has been immense. He dared to declare very publicly in a community which is going through a quiet crisis over the issue, and people down all the community’s corridors have remained there to support him for who he is. And here the road diverges. Does the support for gay Jews necessarily mean Orthodox Jews will have to recognize gay marriage and gay sexual relations as legitimate, simply because of the existence of gay Jews in the community’s midst? There are few ways to ask this question without provoking some sort of emotional reaction, and I’m not sure I’ve asked it in the best way. But this is indeed where things have become murky for me.

Orthodox Jews my age are frequently coming out in support of gay marriage. Certainly there must be a reasoning to support it given that the Torah is quite explicit regarding gay sex, the necessary corollary to gay nuptials. I don’t see much of the reasoning being based on some in-depth consideration of Jewish law. Instead, I see Jews dancing around the issue entirely.

In the US, it seems like there is a tremendously hefty amount of opinions that since the US is a ‘separation of religion and state’ country. It certainly isn’t a Jewish country and it is not located in the Promised Land, the Land of Israel. There is no concern to get involved in the political affairs of the ‘goyishe medineh’ if there is no need to.

But in Israel, the argument is similar. Last week I read a posting in the Times of Israel arguing that since Israel isn’t a Halachic state, there should be no concern about the issue. Though coming from a Dati Leumi Jew, that seemed to be going way beyond to dance around the issue.

I think both views are sort of cop-outs to the larger theological implications of the entire inyan. On rare occasions have I read a genuine grappling of the reality with the Halacha, which is seldom the approach being taken in the Jewish blogosphere.

I feel like every time I try to write this it always stings at least one person that I’m even putting it out there, as if I’m taking away from the emotional gravity of the issue. I’m fully aware of it and I don’t diminish the weight these issues have. But the discourse from the intellectual side seems to be substantially lacking in my personal opinion. Perhaps there is more literature than I am aware of, but I’m not seeing it as a factor in the Jewish world.

Orthodox Jews, thankfully, recognize the emotional weight of what’s happening. But importantly, there is an intellectual discourse accompanying what is nothing short of a crisis for Orthodox Judaism. As I mentioned earlier, there are massive implications for the religion itself based on the existence of homosexuals. For some reason, this period of history is choosing to mark a dichotomy more than previous ones. Homosexuality has been acknowledged throughout human history. For whatever reason, this debate on how to grapple with homosexuals’ existence is challenging Judaism now.

The most compelling opinion I’ve read has been that of Rabbi Zev Farber. He offers both an important point and an important answer to my question. First, he clarifies homosexual relationships aren’t immoral. They are indeed a problem for Jewish law but not because they create some sort of moral dilemma. Gays don’t perform an immoral act when and if they get together. But more relevant to what I mention above, he states homosexuality is something that might be “beyond the person’s control.” More specifically, he refers to a concept called in Aramaic, “oness rahmana patrei.” Loosely translated, it’s “compulsion God mercifully exempts.” That brings up precedent in Jewish Law that Rabbi Farber says serves to justify the principle’s application here, including emotionally distressing situations involving sex. I urge you the reader to visit this paragraph’s link to get more insight into the idea.

Whether or not Rabbi Farber’s approach is actually correct, it certainly adds to a discourse I feel is lacking. Orthodox Jews are emotionally in the right place, but should invest more consideration into how discourse on the religious side of things and the religious law’s side of things is developing. It is hardly a closed discussion in the world of Jewish Law – the world of Halachah. Certainly, if today’s social developments are to occur in tandem with Orthodox Judaism’s prosperity, appreciating both the situation of devout gay Jews and the foundational laws of Judaism simultaneously is going to have to take place.

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April 29, 2012

Israel Heading toward Elections over Ultra Orthodox (not) in the Army

by Gedalyah Reback

For the first time in years, a serious threat has been levied at the Israeli status quo on the issue of Ultra Orthodox Jews serving in the Israeli army. Ultra Orthodox Jews, for many reasons, often won’t serve in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), needless to say rarely approaching units like infantry or tanks. Many instead spend their early adult years attending Yeshivas with their tuition & livelihoods subsidized by government grants. There is indeed a substantial bureaucracy which regulates the practice and therefore is employed to deal with it. The mechanism by which the machinery runs is a piece of legislation called the Tal Law, named after the head of the committee that researched how to reform the practice of exempting Ultra Orthodox Jews from the IDF.

The Tal Committee was run by Tzvi Tal, a Justice on the Israeli Supreme Court, starting in 1999. By 2002, the committee was set up because on the one hand, the exemptions weren’t exactly legal. The Supreme Court itself had decided that there needed to be a formal law regulating it. At the time, since the early 70s, it was by a sort of executive order from the Minister of Defense that had granted the exemptions.

One might ask though why this has gone on so long. This is one of, if not the main issue characterizing social and political differences between secular & religious Israelis. The non-involvement of Ultra Orthodox Jews in the military characterized their rejection of the state. Continuing the practice seemed not just to be a rejection of Israelis’ patriotic sentiments, but also a sort of apathy for the Israelis who would go out and defend the Jews living in Israel from external threats. This week, a protest camp has been set up outside the Knesset called “The Suckers’ Tent,” referring to the apparent position of people who must enter the army and not enjoy both exemption and simultaneous financial benefits for attending Yeshivas.

The Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional in February. The law was supposed to create a framework where Yeshiva students would go to school and then decide between limited forms of military service or non-military national service. In practice, students have been able to indefinitely postpone doing either.

Evolved Problem

In the early 70s, the amount of army-eligible males taking the exemptions was negligible. That number increased steadily as the community became more entrenched and even moved steadily more right. Today, the projected growth of the Ultra Orthodox population, combined with the rising proportion in number of exemptions, has the issue pushing Israel toward dissolving the current governing coalition and launching early elections. How likely the elections are is actually a question though, since most members of non-Orthodox political parties want the Tal Law or anything that allows massive exemptions from national service to be dissolved.

Israel has many political parties that break down along ethnic and religious lines, as well as political philosophy. Kadima seems to be the largest left-wing party while Likud is the largest to the right. But National Union & HaBayit HaYehudi are religious, pro-Zionist parties. Shas and United Torah Judaism are Ultra Orthodox parties. Hadash and the United Arab List are Arab parties. It is Shas we would think has the clout to create a new election cycle, but in fact it is the radically secular Yisrael Beitenu that is threatening pulling out of the government if its version of a reformed law doesn’t pass the Knesset. Their version would require universal national service, whether in the army or in some designated alternative.

Yisrael Beitenu and Shas are both members of the governing coalition, more because they have similar outlooks on security more than on social issues. Negotiating between the two parties would force Likud and Benjamin Netanyahu into an uncomfortable mediating position that would either end in nothing or essentially rehash the compromises that are so unpopular and deemed illegal today.

Ultra Connected

Israeli politicians aren’t often creative thinkers so much as they are overly pragmatic and businessmen. Even though most countries’ parliaments and congresses would respond to such a Supreme Court ruling in the same way – rehashing the old law in a new format and with new language – in Israel the status quo is extremely tough to break. The culture created by the military exemptions has created other social and education problems seemingly unconnected to the IDF service issue. For one, the quality of Ultra Orthodox Yeshiva students is diminishing. In a classic case of quantity versus quality. As one might expect slackers to take advantage of some individuals’ ideological reasons for wanting military exemption, indeed there are underachievers occupying the halls of the seminaries. Many servicemen would consider those few Ultra Orthodox who have entered the military to be of that stock, mostly because their own Yeshivas’ administrators have kicked them out of the seminaries for behavior or laziness. In my mind, expanding the mechanism where Religious Zionist students split time between Yeshivas and the military would be part of if not much of where the answer lies. But it would serve the Ultra Orthodox to have students split time between studying and serving, enabling the brightest students to continue their studies toward inevitable Rabbinical positions.

Secular Israel & College Students

The other side of the issue concerns secular Israelis. While Yeshiva students get stipends to attend their seminaries, non-religious or religious university students are not given the same treatment. University tuition is extremely low compared to the United States, but students still struggle to find sufficient work and pay with such hectic class schedules. I, myself, have had to turn down full time job offers because I cannot meet their desired amount of hours while in school and am working two part time jobs right now. Last year, there were protests by students in the middle of Jerusalem demanding equal treatment by the government, recognizing their academic endeavors.

It’s that demand for equality under the law driving many of the protests by civic engagement groups and individuals. Ultimately, ideology has taken a backseat to the politics of patronage where a bureaucratic normality has taken hold. It will take a sincere and daring effort to undermine that bureaucracy and force a demographic to be more involved in the services of the government.

Other issues I haven’t covered involve the behavior of people in the army. Religious Zionist Jews, who want to serve in the army, have developed their own units and the Hesder program mentioned above (combining Yeshiva learning with military service), in order to answer issues of men & women having increased contact and avoiding the apparent immaturity (sex & other concerns) or secularism of young soldiers in other units. Ultra Orthodox raise these concerns as well on the oft-cited list of reasons to avoid the IDF.

April 24, 2012

Judaism’s New Holidays: Zionist or Not, Jews’ Religion are Increasingly Affected by Israel’s Celebrations

by Gedalyah Reback

Four new holidays, all in the span of a month, have smacked the Jewish calendar in the past two generations. One of them applies universally but has monumental impact on Israelis: Holocaust Memorial Day (Yom Ha-Shoah). Commemorating those who lost their lives in the Holocaust, it is a somber day in Israel and a day to be marked in Jewish communities around the world. It rests adjacent to Israel’s national holidays on the calendar, preceding them by a week.

This week marks the next two. Their are fundamentals for the modern Israeli: Memorial Day and Independence Day. Growing up in the United States, not only are the two days separated but they are treated the same way. Neither has as much emotional significance anymore, both are barbecue festivals and both are days you’ll get good deals on furniture. This is wear religion has played a nuanced role even for secular Israelis. Judaism, as I’m sure is very true about many religions, is careful to play to the themes of the subjects its holidays commemorate. While the Israeli Rabbinate is a thorn in the side of even many religious Israelis because of its bureaucracy and political patronage, it has played a significant role in the regulation and scheduling of Israeli national holidays.

For these two days, the oft-cited theme in religion of going from darkness to light is overt. The day before Independence Day, Israelis remember their fallen soldiers and officially the civilian victims of terrorism. Jewish consciousness extends that memorial to Jewish victims of terror who never carried Israeli citizenship, recognizing the intertwined fates of Jews and Israelis who have been targeted over Middle Eastern politics. Additionally, it reflects a true timeline. The day before Israel issued its Declaration of Independence, 38 civilians were killed defending Gush Etzion, a small group of towns south of Jerusalem. The Jordanians, who had already invaded the territory of the former British Mandate for Palestine before Israel declared independence, massacred those men in an incident that the Jordanians have never denied was an indecent act. It resonated throughout the Jewish population and was fresh news in the minds of everyone the next morning when the State of Israel was declared. Today, Gush Etzion has been rebuilt, but only after its land was recaptured in the 1967 Six Day War.

Reading that headline, Israelis went with heavy hearts through the light at the end of the tunnel to declare independence within 24 hours of the tragedy. But perhaps more symbolic is placement of Holocaust Memorial Day, Yom HaShoah, a week before both holidays. In 1945, after the Allied Powers had conquered Germany, the full scale of the disaster for Jews was still unimaginable. Survivors faced humiliating or impossible decisions, to move back to homes surrounded by anti-Semitic neighbors or to leave for greener pastures. Many chose the idealized guilded journey to the Land of Israel, facing three years of British actions against new immigrants and Holocaust survivors. Local Jews picked up the pace smuggling survivors into the country by boat and from the harbor. Thousands were jailed on British military bases on Cyprus. Eventually, the Jewish population doubled from about 300,000 before WWII to 600,000 on the eve of independence.

That week can symbolize those three years of adjustment. With no clear end to the plight in sight, Yom HaZikaron hits the Jewish mindset – intentionally – at a time when the community is still coping with the anxieties, humiliation and ruins of the Holocaust. But Memorial Day, Yom HaZikaron, has a very different atmosphere. While it seems to be an additional day of mourning and despair, the tone includes one of work left to be done and accomplishments yet to be achieved. The soldiers memorialized, many of them Holocaust survivors who picked up the pieces and settled in Israel after the War, died fighting. Israelis visit cemeteries even if they have no loved ones buried there. Many Jewish seminaries, Yeshivas, take the day off from classes and bring students to see the throngs of people visit memorial parks, events and loved ones’ final resting places. The most popular sight is Mount Herzl, Jerusalem’s local military cemetery which has taken on a de facto status as the national cemetery similar to the American one in Arlington, Virginia.

Independence Day

That’s the atmosphere that precedes Independence Day for Israelis. It is a truly religious experience in one of the most nationalist, patriotic countries in the world. In a mentality of utter darkness, there is suddenly a burst of light. Fireworks and barbecues light up the country. Schools empty across the country like the day before with kids streaming into the streets of cities and even small towns dressed in blue & white. The narrative of the country’s survival is ever present and effervescent when you walk down the streets. Teenagers, soldiers and Yeshiva students wrap the Israeli flag around themselves like a cape screaming and hollering in euphoria.

But it’s not Israel’s only Independence Day. Three weeks later, Israel celebrates a second. It isn’t celebrated by everyone because of the political implications people read into it, but Jerusalem Day, Yom Yerushalayim, has had a much larger significance for modern Judaism than any other newly marked day on the calendar. The reasons have to do with, on the one hand, the city’s vitality to Judaism itself. The second, though, has to do with the emotional rollercoaster I described above. The day incorporates all the feelings the other three exemplify and project.

Jerusalem Day & Preventing another Holocaust

Jerusalem Day is celebrated on the anniversary of the third day of the Six Day War when the city was captured. It’s intent was to be a day to celebrate winning that war without any other meaning attached to it, but the gravity of that war was too immense not to take on further meaning. In the three weeks preceding it, Arab radio made waves of it threats to do away with Israel and literally throw the Jews into the Mediterranean. The implication was there would be mass massacres and total annihilation of the institutions the Jews had created in Israel. Quite literally, some grim newspapers urged the last Jew standing to “turn out the light.”

So when at 8AM on June 5, 1967, the Israeli Air Force caught the Egyptians on guard duty lazily making a shift change, it combined the ingenuity of the military, preparedness and incredible faith to reverse the situation and mentality completely. In one swoop, a funeral turned into a birthday. Egypt’s and Jordan’s air forces were decimated on the ground, and the most incredible preemptive strike in modern military history re-declared Israeli independence. The sweeping UN condemnations of the Israeli action have enshrined Israeli distrust of the organization, considering it was the UN’s monitors who abandoned guarding a buffer zone between Israel and the advancing Egyptian army. Gamel Abdul Nasser never recovered, dying of a heart-attack three years later. Syria saw another coup before the Yom Kippur War six years later. Jordan never again went to war with Israel.

Religious communities, even going beyond the pro-Zionist ones, have had difficulty playing down the miracle that Jerusalem Day celebrates for Jews worldwide. Anyone with Jewish parents who were living in communities at the time – Brooklyn, Long Island, New Jersey, California, etc. – can learn from them that the jubilation of Israel’s survival combined with such an epic return to the capital city of Judaism has been unmatched in the younger generation’s lifetime. Not even the panic that gripped Jews worldwide when Israel was attacked on Yom Kippur, just six years later, could match the ecstatic electricity that channeled through the Diaspora when it was reported Israel had conquered Jerusalem on the third day of the war.

For these reasons, Jews in Israel and in many Modern Orthodox & Conservative communities today celebrate Israeli Independence Day as a religious holiday, fulfilling a religious obligation to thank God whenever surviving a threatening situation or obtaining something wonderful. In this case, both. More so in Israel but also abroad, Jerusalem Day gets its religious share more emphatically. Even Haredim, that is Israeli Ultra Orthodox Jews usually standoffish of Israeli national holidays, celebrate the redemption of the day and are overwhelmed by significance of recapturing Jerusalem. The title might seem controversial if you see the world through politics, but its significance for Jews and Judaism is much broader than even the threat Israel’s conquests might be given away to another, non-Jewish country.

Israeli newspapers are littered with religious ideas about Israeli independence, linking the event to the week’s Torah and Haftarah readings (recent example: here).

April 2, 2012

Israeli-French Relations are Already Shaky

by Gedalyah Reback

Cross-posted in The Beacon: Israeli-French Relations are Already Shaky

The two countries have had a complicated relationship for decades. In the 1960s, French President Charles de Gaulle abruptly severed his country’s alliance with Israel in favor of ties with Arab countries. The French were suffering after the Algerian War of Independence, so Israel was hung out to dry.

But France is extremely important for Israel internationally on the one hand as a central player in world politics and secondly as the third largest Jewish country in the world (population, 500-600,000). It is essentially the capital of Jewish affairs in Europe like New York is for North America. But because of strong French nationalism and skepticism of religious communities, it also hosts a strongly Zionist-oriented Jewish population. It has been a major source for new olim the last few years.

But nothing characterizes the relationship more than the Gilad Shalit crisis. Shalit’s family is one of those immigrant families. He has dual citizenship between France and Israel, and he got several honorable mentions from the French president during his captivity. France also lent some diplomatic muscle to the negotiations for his release. It went well with what Israelis considered the best option for a French president. The Socialist Party isn’t considered as friendly or lenient to Israeli concerns or policies.

Sarkozy has tried improving the two countries’ relationship in other ways. But French politics make the relationship shaky. The European Union’s policies in the Middle East conflict also make a warmer relationship tough. Just last year, both Sarkozy and Obama were overheard talking about how much they distrust Benjamin Netanyahu. Things haven’t been easy.

But for traditional Jews in France, Sarkozy is a mixed bag. This year’s election has him saying just about anything to get himself votes, mirroring the flops Republican candidates have been making in the primaries. Not even two weeks ago, his Prime Minister very publicly said Jews and Muslims should give up their dietary laws and assimilate fully in “modern” France. This is a country where French nationalists have held public protests demanding true Frenchmen eat pork in recognition of pig’s place as a staple of a patriotic French diet.

The idea that anti-immigrant and anti-minority feelings are mixing with anti-Israeli politics is nothing new, and it worries Israel’s advocates that see it all exacerbating European policy against Israel. Since the Second Intifida started 12 years ago, attacks against Jews grew tremendously. The Anti-Defamation League is not missing this opportunity to again talk about the rise in anti-Semitism on the continent. That includes another high-profile Jewish murder, victim Ilan Halimi, in 2005. In France, Synagogue arson has occurred often. Attacks have becoming increasingly aggressive over the years.

Cross-posted in The Beacon: Israeli-French Relations are Already Shaky

December 9, 2011

Chanukah: the festival of anti-assimilation?

by Gedalyah Reback

Original Post at New Voices 

It’s been a while since there has been a good bit of controversy about Jewish assimilation, but thankfully American Jews and Israeli politics are out of sync just enough to justify talking about it again. The latest blip, I think, challenges American Jews much more than any other public effort since the spread of the internet. The Israeli government wants its citizens back home, and it will take a few swipes at the drawbacks of American life in order to do it:

Translation:
Grandmother: “How are you?!”
Granddaughter:”I’m okay!”
Grandmother: “What holiday is it? Do you know?”
Granddaughter: “Christmas!”
::Depression::
Voiceover: “They’ll always be Israelis. Their kids won’t. Help them come back to Israel.”

The video is a product of the Israeli Ministry of Absorption that has devoted more incentives than ever before to Israelis living abroad to return. Israelis and Palestinians are competing in population, and the demographics of the region might have major implications in the future (if Jews were to lose their majority). That issue, however, is not what I find interesting about the video.

The reactions I have seen have been visceral. Israeli (Hebrew) comments on Youtube have been angry. The reactions in English I see on Facebook have been more refined, but equally opposed to the ideas in the video.

Personally, I am confused. The reality is, despite what people might want to believe, is that the video is illustrating something that has happened in the United States. Growing up, way outside of the Orthodox circles and many non-Ortho but Judeo friends I have today, I couldn’t tell you the honest difference between Christmas and Chanukah. I was probably as old as the kid in the video, but until 10 I was pretty content. “All religions are the same” I thought, “they just check different boxes when asked certain questions.” This was all elementary, but bear in mind I didn’t go to Hebrew School (much less Sunday School), and had to ask my parents to get more into the holidays they passively celebrated. Even at 10, I felt like I was laboring or annoying.

I got into the questioning business later and then chose my path to Judaism. The issues I faced were personal, familial and theological. Never mind the fact I had to break into the Jewish community when virtually none lived in my hometown. The video has a point whether or not Israelis or Americans want to acknowledge it. As an ad campaign, it won’t do much convincing. If Israelis found reasons to leave to a foreign country, they’ll be put off being insulted into returning to their home one.

The reactions I have seen to the video seem naïve to me, though. Some of the more liberal friends I have seem to be appalled by it. We have to appreciate there is a contradiction there, since none of these friends would marry a non-Jew or celebrate Christmas. They are just as aware of the problems posed by intermarriage and cultural assimilation, but just can’t accept this advert. Without pretending to be any more an expert on assimilation or PR than they are, I see a lot of subtopics to debate here. Can we honestly think the United States will preserve our religion and will its culture respect the integrity of our beliefs? Do we know for sure that even at our most conservative, we can trust minority Judaism has a fighting chance to influence our community’s kids when competing with a majority’s culture?

Image by Flickr user drurydrama (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

I already find any sort of combo of Christmas and Chanukah to be ludicrous. You should wish someone Happy Holidays, but does it ever make sense to go further than that. Many families mix the two holidays. Chanukah’s popular theme is to resist another culture’s imposing on your own, and Christmas marks a fork in the road between Judaism and a system that nullifies the former’s central tenets. The term “Christmukkah” is a perversion. In my opinion, American Jews spend more time trying to put menorahs in the public eye and barely a second on the actual history or meaning of the holiday.

“They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.”

No. Chanukah is beyond that. Chanukah was first celebrated as a stand-in for Sukkot. The reason it has eight days is honestly debated. It has multiple sources. It’s almost like a comic book reinventing the way its main characters became superheroes. Just as Shamai implies in the Talmud, and as Josephus and Books of Maccabees bring out in the open, Chanukah’s eight days mirror those of Sukkot and Simchat Torah. The Seleucid Greeks, who ruled the country, still held control of the Temple when Sukkot came around. By December/Kislev, the ground had been retaken. Even though there was no requirement, the victorious rebels marked Sukkot in a more wintery way – an eight-day festival that the Bible considers a holiday that will one day be observed by the entire world.

If anything, there is something fitting to that description and pegging it to Chanukah. American Jews might find something resonates in that message – I do. Chanukah seems to be a second chance at a holiday that has significant implications for Judaism. It takes the religion out of its tribal, nationalist motif and forces it to be more universal.

April 1, 2011

Hanging by a Thread: Conversion Corruption in Israel

by Gedalyah Reback

Originally Posted on New Voices

Beginning in 2006, I began the process of converting to Judaism – orthodox style. I came from a mixed family (and my Mom eveven converted via Conservative Judaism!), and for me it was probably inevitable after so many years of searching out the Jews. I lived in a pretty goyische town and grew up with little religious content. Even though I was converting just when the environment was becoming politically hotter, I still gave the benefit of the doubt to the Rabbis around me. My Mom had had a Conservative conversion, yet they still felt I should go through it.

They had a lot of views and policies I was not totally secure about, but I was in no position to ask more than just simple questions. “They know better than me,” I told myself, “and if they say I need to convert for myself, I am not about to start questioning their authoritativeness just because it is inconvenient.” Some day, I thought, I might differ in my opinion to the ones that the rabbis of our day are expressing, “but for now,” the thinking went, I will go with the flow.

That was then, this is now. By the end of 2007, as soon as my personal Rabbi told me I was ready, I began to push anyone else involved – particularly members of the Beit Din. I have followed the issue solidly ever since.

I am starting to get more and more cynical about conversion today, or at least being more outward about it. The problem still lies in the fact policy is the concern of people in charge of conversion, not halachah. So, it’s empowering people who are essentially inventing new rules. It’s turning people away just reading about it, almost as if these new rules are being designed as a new tool to push people from converting (the whole turn-away-3-times thing).

The idea that someone actually needs to be pushed away is remarkable. If someone were only pushed away twice when he first asked a Rabbi about it, his conversion is not going to be overturned – it can’t be. Why? Because this is not an essential part of the conversion process. The only essentials are a brit mila (if a guy) and dunking in the mikvah. Beyond that, it gets more complicated, but those are the essentials. There are a number of reasons to turn people away from converting, but actually trying to prevent their inevitable conversion is a stark perversion of this policy. It is the natural evolution of misunderstanding. Turning people away is doctrine to most people, even Reform and Conservative Jews. This is an absurd development.

We have control over what is an ancient act of policy – turning people away – that is, what is not a halachic precedent. There is no need to employ a deterrence system unless we think we need one. We are not obligated to it. Some say we have to prevent people who will not observe Jewish law from entering the community and diluting the seriousness of its members. This is a legitimate concern. But that is not what is driving these policies today. It is not even the emergent “doctrine” of turning away that I mentioned before. It is policy and politics. But the more people actually believe it is required of us to deter people from Judaism, the more difficult it will be for us to accept new members. All the more dangerous, we are scaring away people who have already converted, creating the most serious spiritual crisis Judaism has had since the European Enlightenment.

It is obvious Israel needs a coherent conversion policy. It is also obvious to population planners and policymakers that Israel’s Russian, Ethiopian and American communities need to have the option open to its members. Conversion allows people to be more mobile in Jewish society and opens doors to integration with people they’d otherwise be unable to marry (both observant and traditional Jews unwilling to cross this Jewish-legal boundary).

From the perspective of making policy for the religious community itself, considering the spiritual ramifications, we are watching the disintegration of the Jewish legal imperative to “respect the convert.” Even more frightening, this is one of the many social flaws that God, via Moses, warns us to avoid to the utmost in the Torah. The consequences of abusing converts, immigrants, widows and orphans are dire and impact the entire Jewish people.

A secular person, whether he is a believer or a traditionalist, needs to understand the gravity that it has, that Jewish religious leaders are ignoring these legal and moral principles. It is a fundamental corruption of Judaism. This marks a crisis in leadership.

There are plenty of Rabbis, both young and elite, that oppose the policies I am tearing apart right now. But, their voices are pretty lame. They are not taking the gloves off and especially not accusing the powers that be of the things that I am. Without a fiercer bite, nothing will change and new Jewish leadership will not emerge. A Rabbinical figure that has the guts to both organize a coherent opposition and articulate could save Jews the world over further embarrassment and division. In so doing, he would rescue Jews from the spiritual ramifications of this conversion crisis. And all the more likely, he would not only reverse the trend of people running away from Judaism, but cause a reverse movement of people flocking toward Jewish observance.

February 13, 2011

Exodus versus Revolution, Exodus as Revolution

by Gedalyah Reback

Reporters, analysts and even some progressive Rabbis have made literary-styled allusions to the Pharoahs of Egypt and the Hebrews’ Exodus in light of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. I’ve personally found the comparisons either to be token or hollow. It is not necessarily because of the invokation of religious heritage on the revolutionary tidal wave hitting the Arab World. However, there is an importance distinction between the two events worth describing here. By defining that contrast, we can understand what comparisons are right to make.

THIS REVOLUTION BELONGS TO EGYPTIANS. The Exodus does not. From a national or an ethnic perspective, the Hebrews were able to leave the dominion of a foreign power. Even from a religious perspective, which arguably can be said to be in the merit of Muslim Egyptians, the demands Moses made of Pharoah were explicitly for the freedom of worship for the Children of Israel in the Sinai Desert. That is to say, the “Revolution” of the Hebrews projected a freedom of worship for the Hebrews through which Moses never directly stated to Pharoah the Hebrews would permanently abandon their enslavement in Egypt. Moses, Aaron and anyone else privy to the statements of God as written in scripture, knew that the statements to Pharoah were merely a front and that the liberation the Hebrews would experience was a freedom to worship in their own country.

While the implications of the above paragraph allude to greater issues of freedom of worship and even the freedom to be obligated to that worship, they constitute a completely different topic. For Egyptians, the oppression they face may only be akin to the economic depravity of the authoritarian Mubarak government. However, Egypt is their country, while Egypt was not the possession ofthe Hebrews. Economically, Egyptians (as well as Tunisians and other Arab peoples) live under the remnants of Arab nationalist socialism. Socialist policies, in this case as defined by Egypt’s 40-year-old constitution and reaffirmed by the country’s Supreme Constitutional Council (supreme court) on several occasions, limits and deprives economic rights. In this respect, with the constant adherence to arbitrary policies about business licenses, Arabs could be “enslaved” to their governments.

An Al-Jazeera-published editorial by Tikkun’s Michael Lerner makes the comparison. He expressed a Jewish identification plugged into Jewish experience with slavery in Egypt. But I have to say those words were not meant for the Jewish public, but the Arab public. They were not the wrong thing to say, but they were words of diplomacy and not words of ideology and assuredly not theology. Our Jewish theology takes pains to sever the connection with Egypt, despite the fact Jewish communities have periodically redeveloped there: the alternative temple in Alexandria, the centering of Rabbinical greats such as Maimonides or the Radvaz, and the extant community that fled in the 1940s. Maimonides himself identified himself as a sinner for “going back there” to Egypt, in contravention of the Biblical directive.

BUT THERE ARE diplomatic words worth reaffirming among ourselves. The words of the aforementioned editorial were window dressing, a facade and surface structure. The proverbial deep structure gives us Biblical versus to respect Egyptians (after a gap of several generations removed from the Exodus) precisely for their initial kindness to allow or ancestors to dwell in Egypt to escape regional famine (decades before being enslaved). Egyptians are not relegated to the category of “those whose welfare you shall not pursue:” the Moabites and Ammonites. They are permitted, in a liberal reading even invited, to join the “congregation” of God conceived in the Sinai Desert and implanted in our own country in Israel.

EGYPT’S REVOLUTION IS SIGNIFICANT FOR THEM. The significance to us of their revolution is very different; it is strategic, implicative and political. Their liberation is constituted by economic, democratic and expressive freedoms. It contrasts with our Exodus in that our freedom was religious, the right to own property and dwell freely on our own land. The socialism they will presumably roll back envests all financial power in the state and will consequently disseminate to individuals in Egypt. For us, as the Biblical verses state, the freedom to reclaim our own landed property was given to us as a matter of law forever, turning over from its renters to the original owners on a 50-year-cycle. Our freedoms were dictated by God and provided in the context of his religious worship. Egypt will have to decide how much of a role God will play as they redraw their consitution and reapply the mixed interests of liberal democrats and Islamists.

If we are going to identify with Egyptians in their revolution, it is yet to be defined beyond a possible Biblical permit to seek their welfare. We could come to define a list of mutual interests. They might constitute democracy, the balance of religious obligation with personal freedom, and the balance of communal interests with the desires of an individual (another priority for Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Council).

MODERN ISRAEL AND MODERN EGYPT (and for that matter modern Iran) may be seen in a wider, even if schitzophrenic, attempt to implement democratic principles in religious governance and religious principles in democratic governance. Israel has obviously taken a very different approach than Iran, whereas Israelis only see civil religious rule and on a limited scale, while Iranians experience a harshly interpreted version of religious law applied across their legal spectrum.

Egyptians face choices in jetisoning Western priorities in law and following the direction of Iran. Or they could follow the Israeli arrangement that allows civil theocratic intervention. Or finally, they could conceive a newer advanced concept of Islamic or religious constitutionalism (which could have consequences for how Religious Zionists conceive the possibility of expanding religious influence on Israeli law).

BUT THESE ARE CONSEQUENCES OF THE MODERN AGE and do not at all come out ofphantom parallels between the Exodus on the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. There are a lot of interests that come up for both countries from this intellectual exercise, though it should be obvious the ancient liberation of the Hebrews was something apart from the recent liberation of Egyptians. But the message to Arabs in Al-Jazeera was right to be sent, not for its content but for the fact it shows valuable support for their endeavors. Its statements about contemporary politics (and specifically about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) cannot truly speak for all Jews, but it is much better than nothing. there is an opportunity here to create a true dialog between Israelis and Egyptians not present during the rule of Mubarak. May a free press flourish there that lets us communicate with the Egyptian street once impossible, and let our identification with Egypt become real and also mutual.

February 13, 2011

Exodus versus Revolution, Exodus as Revolution

by Gedalyah Reback

Reporters, analysts and even some progressive Rabbis have made literary-styled allusions to the Pharoahs of Egypt and the Hebrews’ Exodus in light of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. I’ve personally found the comparisons either to be token or hollow. It is not necessarily because of the invokation of religious heritage on the revolutionary tidal wave hitting the Arab World. However, there is an importance distinction between the two events worth describing here. By defining that contrast, we can understand what comparisons are right to make.

THIS REVOLUTION BELONGS TO EGYPTIANS. The Exodus does not. From a national or an ethnic perspective, the Hebrews were able to leave the dominion of a foreign power. Even from a religious perspective, which arguably can be said to be in the merit of Muslim Egyptians, the demands Moses made of Pharoah were explicitly for the freedom of worship for the Children of Israel in the Sinai Desert. That is to say, the “Revolution” of the Hebrews projected a freedom of worship for the Hebrews through which Moses never directly stated to Pharoah the Hebrews would permanently abandon their enslavement in Egypt. Moses, Aaron and anyone else privy to the statements of God as written in scripture, knew that the statements to Pharoah were merely a front and that the liberation the Hebrews would experience was a freedom to worship in their own country.

While the implications of the above paragraph allude to greater issues of freedom of worship and even the freedom to be obligated to that worship, they constitute a completely different topic. For Egyptians, the oppression they face may only be akin to the economic depravity of the authoritarian Mubarak government. However, Egypt is their country, while Egypt was not the possession ofthe Hebrews. Economically, Egyptians (as well as Tunisians and other Arab peoples) live under the remnants of Arab nationalist socialism. Socialist policies, in this case as defined by Egypt’s 40-year-old constitution and reaffirmed by the country’s Supreme Constitutional Council (supreme court) on several occasions, limits and deprives economic rights. In this respect, with the constant adherence to arbitrary policies about business licenses, Arabs could be “enslaved” to their governments.

An Al-Jazeera-published editorial by Tikkun’s Michael Lerner makes the comparison. He expressed a Jewish identification plugged into Jewish experience with slavery in Egypt. But I have to say those words were not meant for the Jewish public, but the Arab public. They were not the wrong thing to say, but they were words of diplomacy and not words of ideology and assuredly not theology. Our Jewish theology takes pains to sever the connection with Egypt, despite the fact Jewish communities have periodically redeveloped there: the alternative temple in Alexandria, the centering of Rabbinical greats such as Maimonides or the Radvaz, and the extant community that fled in the 1940s. Maimonides himself identified himself as a sinner for “going back there” to Egypt, in contravention of the Biblical directive.

BUT THERE ARE diplomatic words worth reaffirming among ourselves. The words of the aforementioned editorial were window dressing, a facade and surface structure. The proverbial deep structure gives us Biblical versus to respect Egyptians (after a gap of several generations removed from the Exodus) precisely for their initial kindness to allow or ancestors to dwell in Egypt to escape regional famine (decades before being enslaved). Egyptians are not relegated to the category of “those whose welfare you shall not pursue:” the Moabites and Ammonites. They are permitted, in a liberal reading even invited, to join the “congregation” of God conceived in the Sinai Desert and implanted in our own country in Israel.

EGYPT’S REVOLUTION IS SIGNIFICANT FOR THEM. The significance to us of their revolution is very different; it is strategic, implicative and political. Their liberation is constituted by economic, democratic and expressive freedoms. It contrasts with our Exodus in that our freedom was religious, the right to own property and dwell freely on our own land. The socialism they will presumably roll back envests all financial power in the state and will consequently disseminate to individuals in Egypt. For us, as the Biblical verses state, the freedom to reclaim our own landed property was given to us as a matter of law forever, turning over from its renters to the original owners on a 50-year-cycle. Our freedoms were dictated by God and provided in the context of his religious worship. Egypt will have to decide how much of a role God will play as they redraw their consitution and reapply the mixed interests of liberal democrats and Islamists.

If we are going to identify with Egyptians in their revolution, it is yet to be defined beyond a possible Biblical permit to seek their welfare. We could come to define a list of mutual interests. They might constitute democracy, the balance of religious obligation with personal freedom, and the balance of communal interests with the desires of an individual (another priority for Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Council).

MODERN ISRAEL AND MODERN EGYPT (and for that matter modern Iran) may be seen in a wider, even if schitzophrenic, attempt to implement democratic principles in religious governance and religious principles in democratic governance. Israel has obviously taken a very different approach than Iran, whereas Israelis only see civil religious rule and on a limited scale, while Iranians experience a harshly interpreted version of religious law applied across their legal spectrum.

Egyptians face choices in jetisoning Western priorities in law and following the direction of Iran. Or they could follow the Israeli arrangement that allows civil theocratic intervention. Or finally, they could conceive a newer advanced concept of Islamic or religious constitutionalism (which could have consequences for how Religious Zionists conceive the possibility of expanding religious influence on Israeli law).

BUT THESE ARE CONSEQUENCES OF THE MODERN AGE and do not at all come out ofphantom parallels between the Exodus on the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. There are a lot of interests that come up for both countries from this intellectual exercise, though it should be obvious the ancient liberation of the Hebrews was something apart from the recent liberation of Egyptians. But the message to Arabs in Al-Jazeera was right to be sent, not for its content but for the fact it shows valuable support for their endeavors. Its statements about contemporary politics (and specifically about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) cannot truly speak for all Jews, but it is much better than nothing. there is an opportunity here to create a true dialog between Israelis and Egyptians not present during the rule of Mubarak. May a free press flourish there that lets us communicate with the Egyptian street once impossible, and let our identification with Egypt become real and also mutual.

February 8, 2011

Realingment in the Middle East

by Gedalyah Reback

Speaking from a perspective just before Shabbat here, with a week’s worth of headlines rattling around my brain, my instincts tell me this country, Israel, will simply need to continue punching above its own weight in the Middle East.


Along the Israeli-Egyptian Border.

No matter who takes over Egypt, things promise to get more difficult. But that can be limited. Everything gets better before it gets worse, but it does not have to stay that way. The truth is, Egyptians under a democratic regime would loathe the idea of going to war and would oppose an Islamic Brotherhood attempt to send the country into a collision course with Israel. Additionally, the party has to recover credibility it lost to years of being co-opted by the Mubarak regime.

Even so, Israel will have to prepare for the worst case scenario – the Muslim Brotherhood wielding absolute power, repealing the treaty between the two countries and arming Hamas. But the Muslim Brotherhood is not the only player in Cairo, and will have to deal with an emergent movement of opposition parties over the next few months. Iran’s proclamations Egypt is heading down the path of Islamic revolution is more rhetorical than actual. Besides, whatever gains made by the Muslim Brotherhood would be more than offset by new protests in Tehran itself, which seem to be inevitable.

Over the next few months, the Israeli government is going to have to redesign its foreign policy approach. Firstly, it should praise the revolution in Egypt, even if this causes fallout with Mubarak. In the same way Mubarak knows Israel cannot do a thing about anti-Semitic propaganda in state media, Mubarak has no choice for his own sake but to continue a strong embargo on Hamas and block arms shipments.

Over the next few years, the democratization of the Middle East, be it slow or quick, should be the cornerstone of an ideological foreign policy. It has to be. Without such support, Israel will not be able to shake an additional association with authoritarian regimes throughout the region. Simultaneously, democracy enables Israel to more easily lobby different constituencies in various countries seeking support for, at the least, treaties, and at the most, alliances. Minority groups in North Africa like the Berbers or Coptic Christians, the Kurds, Maronites and Druze of the Fertile Crescent, provide stark and realistic possible allies.

Most importantly, Israel will have to engage Egypt intimately and assertively. Congratulating Egyptians publicly for whatever achievements they obtain is a priority. Offers to protect a moderate and democratic government from the Saudis or Iranians should be made. Offers to mediate between Egypt and lower African countries (with whom Israel is growing closer to) give plenty of reason to maintain a balanced relationship.

A free media in Egypt may be the most important development. Even under Mubarak, as mentioned above, anti-Israel and anti-Semitic propaganda have been common. It was not so much out of undercutting the Israelis that such things were printed in Egyptian papers, but to feebly distract Egyptians from the slew of domestic issues they faced and displace any resentment they had toward the Mubarak regime.

Such simplistic thinking did not do justice to Egyptian wits, nor does this meager paragraph do justice to this topic. But Israel and Egypt are far from getting a definitive divorce. There is plenty of reason to think the relationship can actually be improved as so long as the Israeli government makes a persistent effort.


Tahrir Square on Friday, February 4, 2011 – “Day of Departure”

Any vocal support from Jerusalem now can go a long way in tripping up any Iranian designs to take advantage of the situation, poor more fuel on the fire and push the protest movement across the Iranian border.

June 8, 2010

The Right to Property in relation to Peace between Jews and Arabs

by Gedalyah Reback

There is a fundamental flaw in the approach of the diplomatic world in inundating a peaceful settlement in the Middle East – at least between Israel and the Palestinians. Rather than looking at property as the unalienable human right to obtain and hold that other Western governments and the main religions of the world have long respected, international mediators have encouraged an agreement that rests on uprooting thousands of Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims from their homes in the name of an ethnic realignment along the lines of the partition of India and Pakistan in the late 1940s.

Arguing the West Bank is open to settlement under international law, Israel openly pursued a settlement policy that expanded the breadth of the besieged Jewish state once the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem had been secured from Jordan and Egypt – themselves considered occupying powers by nearly every government in the world.

Excluding the now defunt settlement blocs of the Gaza Strip, 500,000 Israelis have taken up residence in private apartment and housing units throughout the conquered territories. At the same time, Palestinians have affirmed their ownership over their own share of land in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. But because of the competing political interests of the State of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, both population groups have seen their properties usurped or restricted.

Several cases have seen Jewish settlers evicted from, and recently purchased properties destroyed, often on the orders of the Supreme court in an effort to appease tension with the Palestinians in the facinity of the properties – be they in Jerusalem or Hebron. Settlers have made purchases in excess of hundreds of thousands of dollars through a series of intermediaries – a system used by Palestinians interested in selling who fear reprecussions by lynchers or the Palestinian Authority.


Jewish women being forcibly evicted by Israeli police from the “House of Peace” in 2008 on the outskirts of Hebron

East Jerusalem Palestinians themselves face a different challenge. Municipal authorities have long prioritized building new neighborhoods that would consolidate the city of Jerusalem, at the expense of permit requests by residents of Muslim neighborhoods. Lengthy waits have encouraged illegal building in these neighborhoods that should have been authorized from the outset. recently, the Mayor Nir Birkat has used the possible demolition of up to 200 illegally built houses for political leverage against American pressure on Jewish housing projects and against Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu.


Police arrest protestors in Sheikh Jarrah, Arab neighborhood in Jerusalem

These political considerations have done more to increase tension in the region than pacify it, with two rival population groups venting their legitimate gripes at each other. This is the fundamental flaw in the idea of splitting Israel from the West Bank along ethnic lines, and points even more directly at the risks of the Obama Administration’s stress on Jewish settlements themselves.

Competing NGOs that represent Jewish settlers and East Jerusalem-West Bank Palestinians have found themselves in conflict. The two groups’ advocates have sought to undermine the rival’s access and rights to properties while strengthening their own.


2007 Hebron Eviction

The most competent way forward is to alleviate the anxiety of these rival groups and declare a moratorium on evictions and demolitions in Jewish and Arab areas that are contentious. Each group’s mirroring concerns fuel much of the tension that has come to a boiling point in the last year. The legalization and restoration of illegal or siezed properties would help restore public confidence in the Israeli government and the right to due process at a time where social confidence is low. To be sure, preserving property rights is a fundamental to any economic aspect of peace, between two states or not.

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