Archive for ‘Jewish Law / הלכה’

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:

Grandmother: “How are you?!”
Granddaughter:”I’m okay!”
Grandmother: “What holiday is it? Do you know?”
Granddaughter: “Christmas!”
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.

April 12, 2010

Israel’s Jewish Engagement with the Muslim World

by Gedalyah Reback

Much ado is being made about the return visit of Oxford Professor for Islamic Studies (and grandson to Islamic Brotherhood founder Hassan al Banna) Tariq Ramadan to the United States, after an official six-year ban being brought to an end by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. The visit is without a doubt controversial in a country where the political atmosphere enabled such a ban just six years ago, but it no doubt was made possible not by a passive end to the policies of the Bush Administration, but the active ones of the Obama government.

While American engagement with the Islamic world undoubtedly coming at the expense of its relationship with the Israelis, it should raise the prospect of what an Israeli engagement with the Islamic world would look like. Just the same, Israel just saw a potential parallel event, realistic or not, floated by Sheikh Mohammed al-Areefi of Saudi Arabia when he said he intended to visit Jerusalem.

It should be a welcome challenge for the country to bring professors, intellectuals and sheikhs of Ramadan’s or Areefi’s stature to Israel not to lecture Israelis about how they can accomodate Islam, but for Ramadan and others like him to feel the pressure of the Israeli and Jewish perspectives on the world.

In a paradoxical way, Israel should be consolidating its Jewish identity for the purpose of engagement with espousers of Muslim identity. This is essentially vital to Israel’s future prosperity in the Middle East, especially now that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is homing in on religious aspects of the fight beyond political and territorial. Progress on Jerusalem will not be as easy to accomplish as were the Oslo Accords (which in their own right have been in danger of being rolled back). They necessitate religious engagement. The value of Jerusalem in terms of a momento or a heritage is undoubtedly overweighed by the religious significance of the center of the city. If Muslims cannot comprehend the vitality of the Temple Mount in Judaism, there will be no reinforced willingness to share the city no matter with whom Israel might have to share it.

The only way this country can maintain a healthy Jewish identity is to make it resilient. The integration of different Jewish communities, obviously referring to the Ultra-Orthodox but potential thousands of liberal Jewish immigrants as well, requires a tough push for Jewish religious identity that will be undoubtedly uncomfortable for virtually every corner of Jewish – not just Israeli – society. Without engagement with each other, Jews will not have a ground on which to stand when approached by the other religious and traditionalist groups of the world.

As lofty as it sounds, such a radical push toward a common approach to Judaism has happened before. In the wake of World War II and the Holocaust, the Land of Israel and the urge to move there reasserted itself on the stage amongst virtually every party in the Jewish world.

The centrality of Jerusalem and the Land of Israel, which today are again central tenets of every Jewish demonination, are being challenged by the political climate, which has a momentous cultural advantage over religious observance and identity in the Western world and among the ruling class in most countries. The jobs of the Ministers of Religion, Diaspora Affairs and Interior should be gearing their policies in the directions implied above. At that point, Israel’s engagement with the Muslim world – and every religious people for that matter – will enable a true influence of Jewish values on global affairs and the centrality of Israeli standing in it.

So invite the Tariq Ramadans of the world to Israel. We should want them to come. Make Israel not just a bastion for dialogue but a capital for religious intellectual freedom unchallenged even in the Islamic world. But first get the biggest guns in the Jewish intelligensia together and get their constituents to listen. Those encounters and those debates are what Israeli culture and Jewish religion will need to push forward with a common Jewish identity. Right now Muslims are getting across the message Jerusalem is their third holiest place. Jews are pathetically asserting that it’s their first.

Joshua Reback has a BA in Middle Eastern Studies from Rutgers University

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