An Anti-Social Orthodox Jewry

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This week, the RCA, OU, NCYI, Agudah, and a few other organizations claiming to represent North American Orthodox Jews issued a short statement on Same Sex Marriage:

On the issue of legalizing same-sex marriage, the Orthodox Jewish world speaks with one voice, loud and clear: We oppose the redefinition of the bedrock relationship of the human family. The Torah, which forbids homosexual activity, sanctions only the union of a man and a woman in matrimony. While we do not seek to impose our religious principles on others, we believe the institution of marriage is central to the formation of a healthy society and the raising of children. It is our sincere conviction that discarding the historical definition of marriage would be detrimental to society. Moreover, we are deeply concerned that, should any such redefinition occur, members of traditional communities like ours will incur moral opprobrium and may risk legal sanction if they refuse to transgress their beliefs. That prospect is chilling, and should be unacceptable to all people of good will on both sides of this debate. The integrity of marriage in its traditional form must be preserved.

  • AGUDATH ISRAEL OF AMERICA
  • CENTRAL RABBINICAL CONGRESS OF THE U.S.A. AND CANADA
  • NATIONAL COUNCIL OF YOUNG ISRAEL
  • RABBINICAL ALLIANCE OF AMERICA
  • RABBINICAL COUNCIL OF AMERICA
  • UNION OF ORTHODOX JEWISH CONGREGATIONS OF AMERICA

Of all the things I disagree with this statement on, one line stands out as particularly egregious: “It is our sincere conviction that discarding the historical definition of marriage would be detrimental to society.” Really? The Rabbis aren’t trying to impose Jewish values on a secular society – they are simply concerned for the perpetuity of that secular society.

Is anyone else puzzled by a group of Orthodox Rabbis making suggestions for what would help maintain a healthy American secular society?

Halacha was designed to keep Jews separate from the larger society. There are numerous laws developed over the ages to prevent Jews from intermingling with non-Jews. We have to eat special food, participate in communal prayers multiple times each day, and separate ourselves for Shabbat and holidays. It goes so far that if a non-Jew (even a heterosexual one!) pours a a glass of kosher non-mevushal wine, we cannot drink it! Many wear special clothing, live in clustered neighborhoods, and send our children to exclusive schools.

If there is anything that is antithetical to American society, it should be Orthodox Judaism.

But of course that’s not true. America is a country where people are respected regardless of their differences. A country where we tolerate people who look different, act different, believe differently and were born different. Diversity is what makes this country so amazing, and what strengthens our social fabric.

If these six organizations want to oppose Same-Sex Marriage, they have that right. But they should not hide behind a false excuse. Admit that the motivation is religious, and be prepared for the repercussions of pushing a religious agenda in a secular arena.

And for the record, if these organizations cared about “the formation of a healthy society and the raising of children,” then maybe they would be advocating for the tens of thousands of orphaned children waiting for adoption in states that deny gays and lesbians (both single and coupled) from adopting. Florida alone has 19,000 kids in their foster system, but does not allow gay couples or singles to adopt.

Can someone explain to those children in Florida foster homes that the OU is looking out for their best interests by denying homosexuals equal rights?

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Parashat Chayei Sara

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This is the Dvar Torah I wrote for the Kesher this week at Mt Sinai. I’ve added some additional commentary underneath it. 

“I just felt like running.” That’s how Forrest Gump answered when asked why he ran across the country. Running was something he had relied on as a child, and he returned to it as an adult. He wasn’t running to or away from anything. He just ran.

Three very different characters dominate the central story of this parasha: Elazar, Rivkah and Lavan. Elazar is the serious, humble servant focused entirely on finding a wife for Yitzchak. Rivkah is the kind, thoughtful even naive young woman who wants nothing more than to help others and make people happy. Lavan is the calculating, self-preserving brother in search of wealth and power.

The common denominator among all three, however, is that they all run. In the span of only 13 psukim, Elazar runs to meet Rivkah, Rivkah runs to fill the trough and ready her home for Elazar’s arrival, and Lavan runs to greet Elazar. They each posess the trait of zrizut, but the manner and means towards which they implement it is very different.

It’s no chiddush that Lavan is running for the wrong reasons, but is it significant to see that Elazar runs only once while Rivkah runs to fulfill two acts of chessed? Elazar is a servant and shaliach of Avraham’s – he serves his master to the best of his ability, but is ultimately only fulfilling the wishes of another. Rivkah is an individual who is acting on her free will – there is no pressure or external responsibility to take any action. Rivkah is realizing on her own that she has a responsibility to act, and she does so with avidity.

The world we live in presents us with very serious challenges. People suffer both locally and abroad. Injustices and discrimination run rampant, and innocent people are left by the wayside. Violence and harassment are not unknown even in our own communities, and we need to decide how to respond. We have to decide if we’re going to run towards the problems or away from them – will we be the selfless Rivkah, the obedient Elazar, or the selfish Lavan?

It’s easy to ignore the question altogether. We live fast paced lives – many of us on treadmills that keep us moving towards no particular goal and in no particular direction. We must fight the temptation to “just run” like Forrest, and ensure that we aren’t running away from the problems of this world. Let’s commit to following in the steps of Rivkah Imeinu, and run headstrong in support of causes we believe in, and in the direction of chessed, emet and tzedek.

I was inspired to write this dvar torah following the recent clustering of violent attacks and overwhelming harassment against homosexuals. Many religious, political and communal leaders across the country stood up and spoke out against this sort of bullying and attacks. Unfortunately, only a handful of Orthodox leaders took a stand against this universal cause, and even those few took a while to come around.

Homophobia and/or hate for homosexuals is not the only cause worth standing up for. There are many injustices in this world, and we need to stand up for as many of them as possible. Some require the contribution of funds, others require volunteering and action, and a few require nothing more than a statement of solidarity. When the rare opportunity to help someone in need comes in the form of a spoken word, written piece or facebook update, how can we pass it up?

I know this dvar torah wasn’t the most intellectually stimulating, but that wasn’t my goal. I want us all to think about the implications of our actions and damage that can perpetuate due to our inaction. Pick your fight, take your stand, and don’t allow momentum to keep you from standing up for something you believe in.

I’m Coming Out

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Today is National Coming Out Day, and I’m coming out as an LGBT Ally.

In too many communities and sub-communities, cultures and sub-cultures, there is still a strong stigma against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender/transexual individuals. In some places as we have seen recently the result is violence and harassment. In others we can find isolation, exclusion and branding in a way that can and does drive people to depression and suicide. In a modern country like the one we live in, it is inconceivable that sexual identity is the basis for people to be openly discriminated against in the military, business places, houses of worship and private homes.

Unfortunately, I am part of one of those communities where the stigma is strong (nerds: please insert Star Wars reference here.) In the Modern Orthodox community, too many people refer to homosexuality as SSA (Same Sex Attraction) and imply that it is a disease or affliction. In too many congregations, the only homosexual congregants that are accepted with open arms are those seeking therapy in the slim hopes of somehow changing their sexual nature through dangerous practices and highly questionable procedures.

There are not enough Modern Orthodox communities where it is OK for LGBT members to simply live their lives without having to disguise their life partner or spouse as a roommate. Too many MO teens who struggle with their sexual identity because they feel there is no one to talk to if they are gay or lesbian. There are not enough LGBT safe places, and there are not enough straight people standing up and saying that they will not judge, but rather offer an open hand.

So today was designed to accomplish just this goal. National Coming Out Day is an opportunity to give an excuse and some encouragement to people who want to share an important part of who they are with friends and loved ones. But NCOD is also an opportunity and excuse for straight people to share publicly with the people they know that they will not discriminate or ignore someone in their community because of sexual identity, but will rather serve as an ally, friend and partner.

Statistically speaking, most of the people reading this post are not LGB or T. So to all of you out there, tell your coworkers, friends and relatives that you will not stand for hateful or hurtful comments about homosexuals. Talk to your bosses about making your company or organization more gay friendly. Make a commitment to be careful with your speech and not judge people you meet just because they might be a little different. Ask your school or university to create an anti-bullying or anti-harassment policy that explicitly mentions acts that are based on sexual identity. Take today to send a letter to your elected officials asking them to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, or to change the law in your state to recognize same-sex marriage.

And to my readers/friends who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, transexual, queer, questioning, straight, and whatever, I have the following to say: You are my friends and I’m going to treat you all the same. You are all people I care about, and it doesn’t make a difference whether you are gay or straight. It is my mission to do my best with my limited abilities to fight for a more equal community that believes in full human and civil rights for all people.

Consider taking today, or any other day, as an opportunity to stand up for equality.

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.

Reflections on the JFNA (UJC) General Assembly

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I spend a good part of last week in Washington D.C. at the Jewish Federations of North American (formerly the United Jewish Communities) General Assembly. This gathering of over 3000 Jews from across North America, and the world, is an amazing experience of the diversity and eclectic nature of the Jewish people.

I think that all Jews, from time to time, think that they are the “average” or “normal” type of Jew. We often forget that there are so many other types of Jews out there, and that so many of them are living very connected Jewish lives. It’s important to have experiences like these with different types of Jews in order to break that feeling of homogeneity.

I had the opportunity over the course of the program to participate in a session run by and for a group of young and passion Jewish Social Entrepreneurs. I was sitting at a table with an active and involved Jewish atheist, two representatives from Keshet (working towards the full inclusion of LGBT Jews in Jewish life) and other types of Jews I rarely have the honor to connect with. As one of the few Orthodox Jews in the room, I was as unique as everyone else – I felt a strong sense of achdut in that moment of plurality.

There is often a misnomer in the Orthodox community that we are the only keepers of the Torah, and that the other denominations mostly consist of lazy or apathetic Jews. In reality, there are so many passionate and educated Jews out there in the world that we are simply ignorant about. We need to break out of our shell, and appreciate the diversity and richness of the Jewish people today.

As a kehilla we need to continue to strive for more of these experiences that bring us together as Jews. We will all benefit from knowing more about eachother, learning from one another, and bonding closer together in our peoplehood.

I look forward to building upon my GA experience at Limmud NY 2010 – will I see you there?