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?

Feminists and Homosexuals

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I had an amazing time today at my first ever JOFA Conference. For those of you who don’t know, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance has been working to “expand the spiritual, ritual, intellectual and political opportunities for women within the framework of halakha” since 1997. I had the honor to run a program for 27 middle school students encouraging them to listen to their inner voice to help find the right answer for how they should live and act.

The best part of the day, however, was a lunchtime discussion on the inclusion of gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews in the Orthodox community. It was such a great idea to link these connected causes aimed at bringing marginalized Orthodox Jews closer to the center of the Jewish communal structure.

While it was clear that a lot of education and work needs to be done (both to support women like Rabba Sara Hurwitz and to help gays and lesbians to become openly accepted in our synagogues and communities), it was such a good feeling to have a room of over 100 people discussing the joint future of these two groups.

I’m proud to be a heterosexual male who considers himself to be a feminist and a gay activist. JOFA is a great forum for Orthodox men and women to join together under the common cause of Feminism.

What our community needs is a similar forum for straights and gay to come together under a common cause of inclusion and equality in the Orthodox community. It happened today (sort of) for about an hour, but we need something that can be year-round and include thousands of people.

We need a Gay-Straight Alliance for the Orthodox Jewish community as a whole. There’s probably a better name for something like this, but we need a way to spread the message that many people in the Orthodox community want their synagogues to be safe, warm and welcoming places to same-sex families, and homosexual singles. This is the next step towards many more advances down the road.

I’d love to hear in the comments section ideas for how something like this could come to fruition.

(*Note: The comments section is meant for discussion, not hateful speech. I will gladly approve comments of people who disagree with me, but I will delete comments that express hatred towards any group of people. Thank you.)

Be Neither Seen Nor Heard

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I spent the last three days vacationing in Newport, Ri with my wife Adina. One of the major winter attractions are three of the dozen mansions built by late 19th-century millionaires. The Breakers, the Elms and Marble House are estates that would rival anything you could find on MTV’s Cribs, and these were “Summer Cottages” used only 2-3 months per year.
One of the remarkable things about these buildings is the structural and architectural efforts that were taken to keep the servants (at least 30 per home) away from the residents and their guests. In the Breakers, special hallways were created for the servants to refill closets with clean clothing without having to enter the bedrooms themselves. The staff in these homes were meant to be as invisible as humanly possible.
This practice of silencing people continues today. We see it with groups that are deemed unwanted or not important enough to be able to express themselves. This is something that happens in every country, every city and every community. There is always someone trying to keep someone else quiet. Unfortunately, the Jewish community is no different.
The Jewish community has tried to pretend certain things didn’t exist within its confines. Brooklyn Rabbis molest children with little consequence because the community leadership is unwilling to bring in secular authorities. It took many years for domestic abuse cases to be dealt with in the Orthodox community. Today, we have homosexual Orthodox Jews who do not have an entirely safe environment in which to be open and honest about who they are. There has been an effort to keep people from publicly expressing themselves as individuals, and to vilify those who do as activists aimed at bringing down Torah Judaism and its values.
Thankfully, the 21st century is nothing like the 19th century. We don’t have the same limitations in our free society that allowed people to be suppressed and ignored for centuries. The infrastructure we operate within is called the Internet. It is designed to allow for equality and openness of personal and communal expression. It’s our opportunity to jump through the formality, and engage directly with the Lord of the Manor.
Despite the efforts that are taken to silence people wherever they are, whoever they are and whatever their cause may be, they are not the servants in this new world. They will not be silenced.
Be seen; be heard.

An Open letter:

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Update 3/13/2011: I was instructed by my previous employer that I could not remain an employee of the University if I did not remove this post. I have restored the post below along with the message I wrote when it was taken down.

 

I owe anyone who reads this blog an apology. it is with extreme humiliation that I removed the text of this post a few minutes ago.

my opinions have not changed. I am sorry.

Update: Reinstated letter.

President Joel,

I want to share with you my support for the event Tuesday night, and the pride I felt in being associated with Yeshiva University that night.

One of my close friends was on the panel, and I experienced the depression he lived through without understanding its cause. I had suspected for a while he might be gay, but I was not sure of anything. In the last year I became much closer to him, and he shared with me what he went through and what life was like now. While he still struggles with halacha and how it relates to his sexuality, his depression disappeared when he came out to his friends, and realized that nobody cared. He didn’t need a Rabbi to tell him whether sex with another man was assur or not – he needed his friends to continue being his friend after they knew about his sexuality.

I know you have received a lot of flak for allowing the event to take place, but I think you know the importance of having a publicized and open program about being homosexual in the Orthodox community. There are many closeted homosexuals on campus and in other places throughout the Orthodox community, and YU took a bold stand by saying “there are safe places for you to be open about who you are.” If you saw the movie “Trembling Before God” you may know that the people who were part of the silhouetted dancing in the beginning and end of the film were people who did not feel comfortable coming out when the video was made. This event allowed people to realize that they don’t need to hide in the Modern Orthodox community.

I know that you are in a very tough situation, and I know that you have a very difficult balancing act to make it through this as President of the University. I just wanted to tell you that I support you in allowing events like this to take place, Adina supports this as well, and most of our friends and peers are in favor of events like this.

There may be many donors and board members who are not in favor of something like this happen, but the next generation of lay-leaders and financial supporters recognize that homosexuality should not be taboo, and should not be something the Orthodox community sweeps under the rug and hopes just goes away.

Thank you,

Aaron Steinberg

Who’s More Religious?

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Something that I find fascinating is that no matter what type of Jewish setting I’m in (all Orthodox, mixed, Reform heavy, etc), I often hear people citing a scale of religiosity that places Orthodoxy on one end, and either Reform or unaffiliated on the other end.

People will say things like “there were all types of Jews there, from unaffiliated to Orthodox.” That statement implies those two groups to be outliers that encompass every other groups of Jews between them.

This is truly perplexing – especially when I hear it come out of very committed Conservative and Reform Jews.

I would not balk at a scale of halachik observance, or strict ritualistic practice, but it’s the scale of “how religious” that really throws me for a loop.

There are many Reform and Conservative Jews who are deeply religious, committed to their faith, and unwavering in their practice. On the flip side, there are many Orthodox Jews who are ambivalent or apathetic about their Judaism, and consider it to be more cultural/societal than religious.

And what does “religious” even mean? Is it the Jewish rules someone follows? Is it how long/intensely/often someone prays to God? Is it how moral and ethical a person is? What is it?

There is no basis to imply that any group of Jews is more or less religious than any other. Religion is what we make of it, and how we choose to manifest our relationship with God in this world.

I may be nitpicking with the language we use, but I recommend everyone think twice before implying any sort of inherent hierarchy within the greater Jewish community.