Archive for ‘Orthodox 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.

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