Torah View on Homosexuality

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“Va’Yivra Elohim et ha’Adam b’Tzalmo, b’Tzelem Elohim bara oto… – And God created Adam in God’s image, in the image of God created him…” (Breishit 2:27)

“Lo tikom, v’lo titor et bnei amecha, v’ahavta l’rei’echa kamocha, ani hashem – You shall not take vengeance, or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself: I am the Lord.” (Vayikra 18:19)

These verses prohibit the most immoral form of behavior known to mankind: the treatment of some people by other people as inferior, second-class, or having fewer rights within the community. This manifests itself in people being ridiculed, discriminated against, excommunicated, and ostracized in their own communities.

The verses above command us to recognize that God created every person in a godly image. We are each unique and special, but what makes us different should be celebrated, not criticized.

When the issue of homosexuals in the Jewish community is raised, many people quickly point to Lev. 18:22 as an easy way to solve the ‘problem’: “personae non gratae, the Torah says that if you cannot change you are an abomination.” The common error people make (aside from a questionably Jewish translation of the word toeva) is to consider homosexuals themselves as being spoken against by the Torah.

The Torah speaks about acts, not people. And many of the acts that the Torah describes  are what we call bein adam l’makom – between people and God.

I cannot imagine the theological struggle a homosexual Orthodox Jew has when they read that verse in the Torah. That is a personal struggle they must each go through, and address in their own way. They may seek a Rabbi’s advice, they may see a psychiatrist for counseling, or they may find comfort in the supportive company of friends and family.

What is of supreme importance is guaranteeing the acceptance and welcoming of homosexual Jews in the Orthodox community. Like any other person who is not living a life in complete observance or compliance with every law in the Torah, we do not demand secrecy and denial in the community.

If we demand that homosexuals in the Orthodox community remain closeted to all but their rabbi, we are asking for a a host of terrible consequences. At best there will be very awkward conversations about dating. At worst we have cases of depression, broken and dishonest marriages, suicidal thoughts and suicidal actions rachmanah litzlan.

We need to create a safe environment for homosexual Jewish in the Orthodox community. This is an unquestionable case of pikuach nefesh.

It is unclear what has caused so many people in our community to not see this reality. Some have suggested that homophobia is rampant in our community, but I have to believe that these are well-intentioned people. Perhaps living in America has led to excessive influence from Right-Wing Christian groups that believe homosexuality is an illness in need of a cure. It is not their fault for being corrupted, but it is our challenge to shed the light on this misconception.

It is not going to be simple, but we must make every effort possible to create an LGBT-safe Jewish community. We will face much opposition on this front, and may be called many disparaging and hateful names. We need to remember the Torah commandment of kol Yisrael Arevim ze ba’ze – all of Israel is bound to one another. We cannot sit by idly while our brothers and sisters are attacked and ostracized.

Through all of this, we must be honest with ourselves, and with Hakadosh Baruch Hu, regardless of communal pressure, considerations or consequences.

Women’s Rights and Religion

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There was a great Kristof article in the Sunday Times about the impact religious inequality of the genders has on the overall oppression of women in the world. When women are denied the ability to participate equally in religious ceremonies and rituals, it contributes to the overall perception that women are secondary or inferior to men, and therefore have fewer rights.

While Judaism gets off pretty easy, there is an accurate and much needed reference in the article to the prayer Orthodox Jewish men say each morning: “sh’lo asani isha” – “that I wasn’t created a woman.”

That blessing is only one striking example of many where women are not treated or considered equal in Orthodox Judaism. In most Orthodox synagogues/communities: women cannot be ordained as Rabbis, cannot lead prayer services for a mixed crowd, cannot chant from the Torah, are discouraged from donning Tallit and Tefillin, and are significantly segregated for many religious and communal activities.

I understand the halachik necessity of gradual progress, and I’m not calling for an end to the distinction between men and women in Jewish life. Men and women are different, and it’s not unreasonable for there to be some ritual differences. But for the life of me, I can’t understand why the idea of a woman serving as Synagogue President is controversial in most Orthodox communities.

While Orthodox Judaism is miles ahead of the violent and oppressive acts against women that can be found in some places around the world, that’s not a standard Jews should be holding themselves to. As a moral and ethical people, we need to work harder to create equality of the genders.

This does not mean that women should immediately begin practicing Judaism in the same way that men do.

The focus needs to be on empowering and allowing women to be spiritual and organizational leaders in the Jewish community. There is not much demand among Orthodox women (to my knowledge) to start wearing Tefillin. The demand is to be given the opportunity to directly influence the direction of the Jewish community as leaders.

There are some amazing efforts out there such as Yeshivat Mahara”t to create a Rabbinic-type ordination for Orthodox women.  We should applaud such well-intended and well-planned initiatives to allow women to pursue Jewish leadership and involvement. Less controversial efforts to allow women to assume leadership positions in notorious boy’s club Jewish organizations would be a nice start.

Unlike the halachik problems of homosexuality, it’s hard to point to a pasuk and justify the different treatment of men and women. Our tradition refers to women as the property of their husbands/fathers, and our legal system (to this day!) allows men to punish their ex-wives  by turning them into Agunot. Let’s create a new tradition that places women in leadership roles, and create a reputation for ourselves as a gender equal religion.

Whatever the text of the siddur may be, hopefully men and women alike can have the following in mind: “sh’asani kirtzono” – “that I was created according to His will.”

My Favorite Books of 2009

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I think it’s time for a non-controversial post. It’s been important for me to write about serious things that bother me in the world, but in the spirit of new year I’m going to share with you the books I enjoyed the most in 2009.

I read some of them on my kindle, and listened to some on my iPhone. I bought some of the copies through Amazon, and got others through Yeshiva’s inter-library loan. But however I found them, the books were moving, interesting and inspirational.

So here they are (in no particular order):

A Confederacy of Dunces – This is a great novel by a young author – undiscovered until after his suicide – named John Kennedy Toole. We follow the crazy life of flatulent, disgusting and verbally abusive Ignatius J. Reilly and his cohort of wackos. It’s a very funny novel that is so quirky and unique that you won’t want to put it down. Thanks to Nava from my book club for this recommendation.

Omnivores Dilemma – If you like the idea of being scared to go grocery shopping or open your refrigerator, this is the book for you. Michael Pollan explores the impact 20th century food engineering has had on the food we put into our bodies. Finding out the sheer amount of corn that goes into our bodies through various channels was mind-blowing. This was my inspiration to stop drinking fructose-based drinks (soda, snapple, fake juices etc), and has caused me to rethink what I eat and the impact it has on my health. I have plans to check out his two recent books “In Defense of Food” and “Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual.” This one came from Rena – also in my book club.

Push – This was the most intense book I have read in the long time. Sapphire delivers the story of a young girl in Harlem who is overweight, undereducated, twice pregnant by her father at the age of 14, and both physically and sexually abused by her mother. It was made into a movie this past year which is how I heard about the book, and it really drove home the work that needs to be done to protect children in America. As a Social Worker, and as a caring human being, this book really moved me.

Outliers – Yet another great book from Malcolm Gladwell. His writing style is consistent and the topics he covers are always interesting. I listened to this on my iPhone, and it was like an awesome 7-hour podcast. He talks about how 10,000 hours of practice is needed to become an expert at anything, how Chinese children learn how to do math earlier, and how hockey players born in January will always have an advantage. I plan on reading “What the Dog Saw” at some point soon.

Sirens of Titan – I have really loved Vonnegut every since I read “Cat’s Cradle.” This is definitely one of the classics, and I just thought it was a very cool story about space travel, time travel and the true value of life. If you’re not crazy about sci-fi, but can handle something that defies the law of science as we know them, you might like this.

I Will Teach You To Be Rich – I read this book in one day, and it was definitely worth the time and the $11. Ramit Sethi has written the perfect book for young people to learn about personal finance and expenses. He covers all of the basics, and explains it in a super simple and straightforward manner – and he includes some great tips that even non-novices will find helpful. I know a good amount already, but I still learned plenty. Every college grad should be given this book.

Survivor: A Novel – This was my first Chuck Palahniuk novel, and it was just fast and fun and clever. It was a pure pleasure read that explored some weird ideas and even weirder people. It definitely made me interested in reading some more stuff by this guy.

On tap for next year are a few books recommended by my book club, and a couple of others I got through the NYTimes Book Review. Those include (but are not limited to): Under the Dome, Portnoy’s Complaint, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, The 4-Hour Workweek: Expanded and Updated, and Bonfire of the Vanities.

If you want to follow what I’m reading (the good with the bad) checkout my online library on Shelfari.

What books did you like this past year?