Archive for ‘Diaspora’

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.

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.

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