Pride Parade – part 2 (The more heated version of the debate)

My previous post about participation in and support off pride parade in Jerusalem sparked several other debates. Below is probably the most heated one. I was uncertain whether to post only my responses (as in my previous post) or also opponent’s (regretfully, that would be the accurate term to use).

I decided to post both sides of the debate. This is for 2 reasons:

1. He makes some interesting points and brings up some arguments I had not thought of previously, or at least not in that way. I think they are worthy of consideration even if I disagree with them.

2. More importantly, because the tone and some of the language used is a very good example and expression of much of today’s progressive discourse in general and queer discourse in particular. A sense that part of being right comes from vilifying your opponent and/or from being a victim. It is a shame, as I do believe he had some interesting arguments, which were shadowed by some of the terminology and tone he chose to use.

Several people have messaged me privately that they would have liked to “like” and “share” my original post as they felt it articulated their own beliefs on the matter but are hesitant to do so for fear of being accused of intolerance or worse and from fear of losing friends. It is sad and a bit scary to me that we have reached a point where people are made to be scared to express their opinions and engage in intellectual debate, and in the name of “tolerance”, none the less. That is part of the reason I feel it is important for me to continue having these debates – and posting them.

 

As a response to my original post he wrote:

Wow. I’ve read a lot of silly things about Pride, but Yair’s piece takes the cake. Pride is about cultivating a collective self-esteem for an identity that is too often met with familial, communal, historic and systemic rejection. Ask any LGBTQ person and they will tell you that there was one point in their life where they thought that if the people around them knew their truth, they would be rejected or worse. This ubiquitous experience stays with you forever, and Pride is about combating it with a celebration of self-worth. Full stop. In places like Jerusalem, where LGBTQ children, teens and adults are being rejected by their families and communities every day, Pride is even more important. Research shows that it is actually the lack of self-esteem about one’s sexuality that is correlated with sexual compulsion, risky behavior, self-harm and promiscuity. Events like Pride fight against that and helps to rebuild a stronger sense of dignity so that we have the well-being to make more moral, ethical, and accountable decisions. So if you were really worried about sinful behavior, I suggest being concerned about LGBTQ people not having access to Pride events.
Furthermore, as a mental health professional who takes his whole youth group to pride every year, I am physically disgusted by the suggestion that you think these 13 and 14 year old’s are celebrating their “sexual behavior”. STOP SEXUALIZING LGBTQ CHILDREN!

Yair Spitz, While I appreciate any musing about a subject, I would be embarrassed to share such a sophomoric analysis on a subject that you clearly know very little about. For more info about the importance of Pride to LGBTQ youth, check our website.

I responded:

One of the points I was trying to get across is that I disagree with the fundamental concept of sexual identity. Meaning, I believe that many people have decided to allow it to define them but I am claiming that that is a choice. A sexual attraction very well may not be a choice but allowing that to define oneself is. One can choose – consciously or unconsciously – which biological and emotional tendencies and which actions define him and impact their self-esteem and feeling of self-worth. If you disagree – I’d be happy to hear why.

That have been said, I do think that in a culture which idealizes being “true” to one’s natural state (meaning, not restricting it) and extreme individualism of “just be who you are”, it is easy to understand why sexuality has become such an integral part of peoples sense of identity. Much of this is diametrically opposed to how I understand the traditional Jewish approach to the meaning and purpose of human and Jewish life. If you disagree with the traditional Jewish approach – that is of course absolutely fine. It would be important to define those differences to understand where each of us is coming from. If you think your approach to this topic is consistent with the traditional Jewish approach – I’d be happy to hear how.
This also has to do with your comment about self-esteem. Lack of, or low, self-esteem is the cause of at-risk behavior for most teens, whether they are struggling with their sexuality, the way they look or the feeling that they are a failure in school. When people are surrounded by a culture in which sexualization and even romanticism is on every billboard, every movie, every show, etc… it indeed makes a lot of sense that this will become the litmus test by which they measure themselves and their self-worth.
I did not say that 13 and 14 year old’s are celebrating their sexual behavior. You either misunderstood what I wrote or are grossly misrepresenting it. I would hope that you wouldn’t need to misrepresent your opponent’s arguments in order to argue your own. Additionally, I would hope that when you think about the topic yourself, or discuss it with your students, you have more to say about the opposing opinions than to dismiss them as nothing more than ‘silly’, ‘sophomoric’ and ‘disgusting’. This is because:

1. It is false. Is it not possible that I have spoken to students and extended family of mine who are openly gay and am aware of their struggles and challenges? and that I have read literature on the topic and simply disagree with many of their premises?

2. It cuts off any possibility of exchange of ideas – in either direction, something I imagine you would like to see happen – at least in one direction.

I most definitely do try to do better. I simply think we have very different understandings of what “better” is, including when it comes to this topic.

To which he responded:

First of all, the whole “I know about race because I spoke to a black person” narrative may work in your circles, but in intelligent society, those kinds of statements are laughable. I’m sure you spoke to a gay, I hope it was lovely.  With respect to your other “points”, I honestly have no idea what you are talking about (and likely neither do you). LGBTQ people have these identities foisted on them because they live in a world where, at best everyone is assumed to be straight and cis, and at worse, you are bullied and rejected if you appear to be anything but straight and cis. Do you think any of us wanted to feel different, alone and rejected? Again, what are you talking about?!?

LGBTQ children and teens are being made to feel bad about themselves because of their sexual orientation and gender identity…so it stands to reason that the building of collective self esteem healing should begin there. Most queer people come out far before they engage in any sexual behavior. And they certainly attend pride events far before they ever engage in any sexual behavior. Their identities are not formed around sexual desire, but the experience of being different than the assumed norm when it comes to something as essential as sexuality and gender. This is an important distinction that you seem to be missing. My identity, and my pride is not at all rooted in what I find sexually arousing.
The whole idea of LGBTQ Pride is the liberation from labels, not restricting ourselves to framings generated in a world where people like us had little say. Our queerness is non-binary, and much more related to the Judaic-german concept of dialectic – than words used for diagnoses. We are at once the bread of affliction and the bread of freedom. If you don’t get that, then you simply don’t get the LGBTQ experience…and probably shouldn’t write about it…yet.

 

I responded:

You claimed I knew very little about the subject. I responded that I know, have spoken and counseled individuals who see themselves as gay. I tell you I have read at least some of the literature people in this thread are referring to and your response is, basically – “you sound just like a racist”. I don’t see how you can claim both sides of the argument. I ask again – is it just completely inconceivable to you that someone may know and may have spoken to many gay people and empathizes with them and has read queer literature and still disagree with the philosophical, ideological and moral foundations of queer culture?

As I have written previously, my observations and main argument is not of how individual people feel or even act. My observations and argument are about LGBTQ culture. And I will add – the conflict it can, and many times does, cause between one, specific, aspect of young people’s identity and other parts of their identity – their family, their religious faith and belief, their community, their heritage, etc…   I continue to argue that the two – individual gay identity and LGBTQ culture – are two very distinct things. You are quite obviously of the opinion that the two are inseparable. I understand the argument but disagree with it, because of my differing understanding of what constitutes identity, in general, and the role LGBTQ culture plays in amplifying one part of it at the expense of the others, which stems – among other things – from a certain ideology and political stance. I’m sorry I am not able to better explain my point, at least enough for you to realize the possibility of their being merit to an opposing approach to the matter. Maybe more acceptance and tolerance would be helpful on both sides of the isle.

To which he responded:

As a mental health professional who specializes in working with this population, it terrifies me that you “counseled individuals who see themselves as gay”. I wonder if they refer to you as “an individual who sees himself as Yair”? I mean seriously, are you even aware of how rude and insulting you sound by framing your reference like that? Let me be clear, from your writing it is evident that you know very little about both LGBTQ identity and LGBTQ Culture. This fabricated distinction that you seem to be peddling as a false dichotomy is meaningless. To weasel out, now you want to reduce your argument to semantics. I’ve graded many a paper from students who try to pass off these amateur mistakes as substantial rhetoric. It doesn’t get passed me then, and it isn’t now.

We don’t have to accept or tolerate bad arguments or ignorance. We certainly do not have to tolerate it when it is coming from a person with no personal stake in the matter who is waxing recklessly about our very value, self worth and emotional well-being. You wouldn’t tolerate it when a non Jew starts telling you what your Jewish Identity means and denying your Jewish name, the same way you should not tolerate it when a man tells a woman what being a woman is all about. This is not a debate, this is me trying to teach you something and you sitting in your ill informed foolishness. When non Jews come for and question your Jewish flag, your right to your own Jeowsh name, your right to celebrate as a Jew, and your entitlement to some pride in your Jewish heritage, perhaps you might begin to grasp that casually musing about whether other people should have or have no access to basic dignity…is obnoxious.

For the record, yes readers, the person who has advocated to strip other people’s rights away, the person who is questioning other people’s identities, the person who broadly dismisses other people’s culture… is the one now asking for tolerance. Typical.

 

I responded

1. Where did you see me write anything about stripping people’s rights?

2. I fear you misunderstood my comment about tolerance. I was not asking you to be tolerant of me or my opinions for my sake. I am not insulted by your dismissiveness. Really. I’m not. I didn’t imagine it would be possible to have such conversations on social media without being called names and dismissed. My comment about tolerance was for your own sake as I find that it usually serves the argument of the side exhibiting it and enables dialogue. Meaning, even if you have no hope in convincing me, I’d think you would want people reading these exchanges to have the best chance of understanding your actual arguments and not disregard you because of the rhetoric you choose to use.

At some point someone else responded to one of my comments saying:

We just finished reading Parshat Naso in which the woman suspected of adultery is dragged through a horrific ritual in order to prove or disprove her guilt. I would ask those haters when the last time was that they forced a woman to drink the Waters of Bitterness or stoned to death a rebellious son. Hypocrites all of them! They pick and choose whom to hate based upon their own fears and ignorance.

I responded:

When was the last time someone stoned to death a homosexual – or called to do so? Additionally, I’d be just as opposed to a parade of adulterers/adulterets celebrating their choice to commit adultery and calling on people to come out and support their right to do so. This, despite the fact that I don’t think there is anything unnatural about wanting to, and actually committing, adultery.

 

To which she responded

I must have struck a nerve or not have been clear in my statement. The point I was trying to make is that there were many biblical practices that when seen through a modern lens, we realize were abhorrent and beyond what we would tolerate as acceptable behavior today. Similarly, there are many practices which were deemed abhorrent in ancient times due to sociological misunderstandings, which today, we would find acceptable practices. when someone has a boo-boo on their arm, the high priest doesn’t come look at it and send them out of the community for a week anymore. Similarly, we understand the ancient sociological basis for the admonition against the practice of homosexuality and today, understand the errors of that prohibition. Okay! Flame away!

I responded:

We are quite obviously coming to this discussion with very different assumptions and beliefs about the Torah in general and its relevance, in particular. There is no Mitzvah I would see, let alone define, as abhorrent.
Similarly, I wholly disagree with your assumption that the content of the Torah and the Mitzvot are based on the societal norms of the time. I am operating from a very different assumption and belief; the one which is consistent with Jewish tradition throughout history – 1. that the Torah was given by Hashem and is not a human creation or just “divinely inspired” 2. (Because of point 1) The Torah and the Mitzvot are not based on the societal norms of the time it was given, rather is based on societal norms as they should be.
This have been said, there is much to discuss regarding the penal system of the Torah – and the rabbis of the Talmud and others have done so at length. For example – the discussion regarding a rebellious son and to what degree the Torah meant it as an actual punishment vs. a very severe warning sign. The fact that both opinions have been part of our literature for over 1500 years means that these two approaches play completing roles in the approach to the topic -the practical level which serves as a warning sign for parents and kids alike about the dangers and destructive nature of extreme rebelliousness and the theoretical level where such a thing could even warrant death.

This is just one possible explanation to one of the points you brought up. I chose it because it is the less politicized of the three but I believe there are similar ways to reconcile some of our modern sensitivities without dismissing and without putting ourselves in a place of passing moral judgment on our communal identity and heritage. Especially when it is that exact heritage which serves as the foundation and source of most, if not all, of the morals and ideals in whose name we are speaking,

I am sorry you chose to present Tzara’at is a mere “boo boo”. I have a feeling you know very well the amount of literature, ancient and modern, that discuss this disease and am uncertain why you feel the need to mock something that has been part of our tradition – in one way or another – for thousands of years.
As I stated, we seem to be speaking from two very different perspectives. Mine is rooted in what has been, consistently and wholly, the core moral and religious identity of Jewish tradition for thousands of years and through that has impacted and transformed Western Civilization’s and humanity’s moral identity and norms. I believe that we were able to do so because the Torah is divine and only because of its divine origin did it – and did we – succeed in it being so transformative. Unlike so many passing fashions of ideology which, over the years, have been adopted by many, claiming truth, justice and morality, just to fade away leaving little if any lasting impact on humanity. I’d be happy to understand what perspectives you are operating from.

At some point of this offshoot conversation, my original opponent joined in and wrote:

how in the world can you compare a pride parade to people who commit adultery? Is a pride Parade to you just a parade of people who commit anal sex and support their right to do so? Is that what the thousands of teens ages 12-18 are doing when they dance through the streets reclaiming their self worth? Are you that perverted that all you see is that when we celebrate our perseverance and community?

Are you even aware that the A in LGBTQIA stands for Asexuals?!?! Why would they be part of a parade about anal sex…or trans and intersex people for that matter?!?

The truth is: You have NO IDEA what you are talking about. The fact that you could even think that this analogy is apt, says everything.

To which I responded:

Why is it you assume that adultery is only about the act of having sex with someone other than one’s spouse? I mean this seriously. I am certain there are support systems and communities of people dealing with adultery dilemmas and the challenging relationships which drive them to choose the specific act. I am sure there are people who feel that once they have committed adultery this act defines them forever. There are people who see themselves as adulterers though they haven’t actually slept with anyone else.

I agree it isn’t a perfect analogy but I think it is a better one than you are presenting it…

And, just for the sake of accuracy, I am not the one who came up with the analogy. “Jane” tried pointing out that people treat the sins of adultery, rebelliousness and homosexuality very differently in order to make the point that people’s treatment of pride parade is motivated by simple hate that is excused through religion or fake ideology.

To that I responded that I would oppose public celebrations of the legitimacy of those prohibitions just the same. Which I would. First and foremost, this would be aimed internally, at people from among my own community – Orthodox and Observant Jews – who support or are considering to support pride parade. If you look back at where the conversation began, you will see this was my starting point.

Indeed, someone coming from a fundamentally different world view (which I don’t know to say if you are or aren’t) would find many of the things I am saying quite objectionable and ill-informed.

But, like you, I am writing less with the expectation to change your mind and more for the sake of others following these conversations and may be looking to form their own opinions on the matter.

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Pride Parade – a critical debate about religious acceptance

A close friend of mine, who is also a very respected and successful educator, posted support on Facebook last week for the pride parade in Jerusalem. A lengthy and healthy discussion ensued between myself and several of his Facebook followers.

Since my posts on the matter were responses to other people’s comments, they don’t necessarily constitute a full, coherent system of thought on the question of ‘what should be our attitude – as Orthodox Jews – to pride parade and LBGTQ culture’. I hope to one day soon create such an essay but, for the time being, I think people may find interest in these posts. I have received many responses from people saying they feel it has helped them articulate their own opinions better. Even if you find yourself disagreeing with what I write, I hope you will see there is at least a legitimate and logical argument for a conservative approach of opposing pride parade without immediately suspecting ones’ moral character.

Please feel free to comment, question and argue as well as to share positive feedback. Despite how loaded the topic is, I think everyone benefits from it only if it is done in a constructive manner.


Post #1  

I have difficulty accepting your call to publicly support the pride parade in Jerusalem this week. I fully accept individual people but I, as an observant and believing Jew, do not accept – and resent the expectation of me to accept – a way of life which the Torah (and I) understand as being a sin and wrong.

It is like expecting me to be accepting of a flag – and parade – recognizing the legitimacy or rights of adulterers or people who engage in incest. They have feelings, they have rights, some of them even have tragic stories and circumstances but the idea that we as a Torah society should accept the community of adulterers, or community of incestuous couples, or a parade of adulterers and parade of incestuous couples (in Jerusalem none the less) is a terrible thought to me. Even if an individual person who committed adultery might deserve understanding and acceptance – as an individual.

Post #2

1. You write that there is no prohibition in the Torah to be gay. That depends on what you mean by gay. There is no prohibition to be attracted to men just like there is no prohibition to be attracted to sisters-in-law and no prohibition to be attracted to siblings and no prohibition to be attracted to animals. None of these are prohibitions and we find that all of them are referred to in Rabbinic literature as situations a person might find themselves prone to in certain situations.

There is a prohibition, however, to act on these impulses, even if every single one of them is 100% natural and harms no one. It is a Torah prohibition for a man to have sexual relations with another man. Period. No way around it, even if they are truly and honestly in love and biologically and emotionally attracted to each other. It is a prohibition for a brother to have sexual relations with his sister. Period. No way around it, even if they are truly and honestly in love and biologically and emotionally attracted to each other.

And as I said – though I may be sympathetic and accepting towards an individual who chooses to do a prohibition, under no circumstances am I willing to accept the legitimacy of the sin itself.
For example, many of my (unmarried) students have girlfriends and have shared with me that they are involved in physical relationships with them, despite the severe prohibitions involved.

Did I dislike them because of this? No. Did I resent or hate them because of this? No. Did I still accept them as Jews and people? Of course. But if they were to come to me and say they want me to accept and be ok with the fact that they were having pre-marital sex with women who are Nidda and that I shouldn’t say it is wrong and they were to tell me that if I teach that  it is wrong, or even believe that it is wrong, I am a bigot and that I am an intolerant person – that would be an entirely different thing.

And if they organized and marched demanding recognition as an oppressed minority – hormone raging teenagers with no religiously acceptable outlet – I would, of course, not accept it in the least. And I imagine neither would you.

2. I personally am (and believe Halacha is as well) a big believer in certain aspects of queer theory. I would argue that the Torah does not accept the concept of sexual orientation at all. That the Torah does not recognize categorizing people by their sexual attractions and that – as we find in numerous places in Chazal – anyone could, under certain circumstances, be sexually attracted – and engage in sexual relations – with anyone.

But, even if you don’t agree with me about this point, as I’ve previously stated – it doesn’t really matter, as Torah does not prohibit attraction and does not prohibit sexual orientation. It prohibits sexual acts.

By the way – why is incestuousness immoral? If 2 consenting adults, who happen to be siblings , or happen to be mother and son, fall in love with each other – something one could argue they may have no control over – why is it immoral? I am asking seriously.

3. You ask why I say it is so much worse in Jerusalem. Any public display of sin is a Chilul Hashem. And that is what this is. Thousands of people marching in the street proclaiming “it is ok to engage in homosexual sexual relations” and “saying that homosexual sexual acts are wrong is primitive and discriminatory”. This would be true everywhere. But doing so in the holy city of Jerusalem – how much more so. Everything in Jerusalem is amplified. Jerusalem is the place in which our relationship with Hashem and our divine destiny is at it’s peak. The Nevi’im are filled with rebuke about sins done – specifically in Jerusalem, and how public sinning defiles the streets of Jerusalem. A public display and proclamation of legitimacy for acts of sin/revolt in the king’s palace?

I would feel exactly the same if someone wanted to organize a parade and put up flags in Jerusalem celebrating the legitimacy of eating pork (also a natural drive) and expecting me to fall in line, despite me not trying to prevent individual people’s choice to do so in the privacy of their home.

4. Indeed I have had students over the years – male and female – who shared with me their deliberations and struggles on these topics. I believe that not a single one of them felt rejected or hated. On the contrary. To them as well I have explained the fundamental distinction:

There are 2 very different things: acceptance of an individual who struggles with their identity and the challenges of observing Halacha. Whether it is keeping Shabbat, respecting parents, being loyal to a spouse or homosexual attraction and acts – it is our duty and privilege to accept them as Jews and, to whatever degree we can, help them feel part of the community while – in a variety of ways – help them aspire and work towards a life void of sin.

But to accept a categorical lifestyle which has at its core something which is prohibited? To accept public displays of praise for Torah prohibitions? That is not about tolerance. That is about politics. I’ll accept every individual. I won’t accept being forced to accept an ideology which is counter to fundamental beliefs of what Torah defines as right and wrong. That is not tolerance. I’d sooner call it thought police coercion masquerading as liberalism.


Post #3

Regarding your statement: “what happens when a person tells you that they’ll never be able to have any sort of deep romantic relationship with a person of the opposite sex? That is very different”
I am not sure I agree. I imagine there are many heterosexually identified people who are utterly convinced that they could not possibly have a romantic relationship with anyone but their spouse/partner. I am aware that it isn’t exactly the same things but, if we are judging things from the subjective perspective of the individual, I am not convinced it is that different either.

You write that homosexuality isn’t merely a sexual preference and that it ‘seeps very deeply into a person’s conception of themselves and their identity’. I am not an expert – or even a formal student – of sociology so I will phrase the following not as a statement, rather as a question: Considering we know as fact (and as logic would dictate as well) that homosexual drives, attractions and relations have been part of human nature throughout history and – to the best of my knowledge – until very recently there weren’t really frameworks for homosexual cohabitation, couple-hood and families, wouldn’t it then follow that seeing, or feeling – that one’s homosexuality ‘seeps very deeply into a their conception of themselves’ – is a choice one makes, be that choice a conscience or unconscious one (a-la social construct)?

Meaning, for thousands of years homosexuality existed merely as a sexual preference. I imagine some people found a way to live within normative frameworks of couple-hood while either repressing their tendencies or by leading double lives. During certain periods it may have been accepted to indulge in any and every type of sexual behavior. Sometimes with consent and, regretfully as we are aware, many times without.
One could argue that what I am saying could just as easily be applied to straight couples as well – that sex and couple-hood didn’t necessarily go together either; that romantic love and sexuality can – and have many times – been separate from each other.

I do understand the significance of what I just wrote and I am aware how objectionable it may sound, especially in this day and age. I am not advocating loveless, passionate-less marriages which are filled with cheating. Not in the least. What I am saying is that identifying sex and romance with one’s conception of self and core identity is not necessarily an objective reality as much as a fairly recent sociological development. And this is where I have my biggest issue. As I’ve stated above, I personally hold – and strongly believe this is most consistent with Torah – that defining and categorizing people based on their sexual drives is morally decadent. Be that definition straight, gay, bi-sexual, a-sexual or any other definition which attempts to reduce a human being to their the sexual activities that give them the most physical and emotional satisfaction.

There are sexual acts. Everyone and anyone can, theoretically be attracted to anyone. That is why all the following rules appear on the same 2-3 pages of Gemara:

A man and a women who are not married to each other should not be alone together in a secluded room. One man should not be alone with 2 women in a room together. 2 men used to be allowed to be secluded with a woman but at some point it became forbidden. Servants and children should not dine together without other adults there. Single men should not teach young children because of the married mothers who frequent the school house but also – 2 single men should not sleep together under the same blanket and a single man should not herd sheep. All of these prohibitions are for exactly the reasons one would think…

There are other such examples but the idea of all of them is the same – the sexual drive is powerful and could, under the right (or wrong…) circumstances lead to anyone being susceptible to sexual gratification and satisfaction with practically anyone else. The Gemara doesn’t seemed freaked out by any of these cases and seems to assume they are all part of what could be reasonably expected if one were left to their natural instincts.  But to say that any of these acts defines a person as a separate type of person seems to me to minimize and reduce what it means to be human and – more pertinent to where this discussion began – politicize it. (A worthy, separate, discussion is – what is Chazal’s fundamental approach to sexuality in general. But suffice to say that their attitude is rooted in a very different understanding of human nature, purpose and destiny than the dominant approach in today’s culture).

I do not understand how you can say “I have the Torah that tells me certain things are simply not allowed… and yet I want you to be proud of who you are”. If a person was born with a heated temperament and is challenged not to yell at people and lose his temper – he should be proud of who he is as a short-tempered person? The idea that “God accepts us as we are and so should we” is, in my eyes not consistent with the traditional Jewish approach. We assume that we absolutely are not good enough as we are. From the moment we are infants we are taught to believe that “us as we are” is not enough. It is just the beginning and one must – and can – improve and better oneself. We must change, develop and grow to become more than our natural selves. Few things represent this more than the Brit Milah which, of course, is reflective of everything we are discussing.

And even if one could argue the importance of accepting oneself as they are at this very moment in order to be able to realistically work on self-improvement, that is very different than being proud of who they are as someone who is regularly doing something which is defined as a sin.

Be happy for being a human being, be happy for being a Jew, believe in yourself enough to aspire to be good and do good, etc… why should someone be proud in general and particularly of who they are romantically attracted to or like having sex with? And more importantly, why should they be parading it in public? This is where the cynic in me sees pride parade and pride culture in general as much more about politics than anything else. And worst of all, politics masquerading as something else entirely.

[After all of the harsh things I have written I will concede what I believe is an important point. I do think that many, many observant people do not come at the topic with “clean hands” (clean souls might be more accurate). Many say “it isn’t natural”, which is of course incorrect. Many think “it is disgusting”, which as we know can stem from anything from a puritan-style upbringing to fear of their own latent or repressed homo-erotic feelings or other issues I do not know to name. Too many treat it as some extra-ordinary sin, so much worse than any of the other sins mentioned in Torah. The attitude which treats it as so obscene an act and sin has mixed within it too much that, I believe, is not Torah. Too much of it is just good (or bad) old intolerance and fear of those that are different.

This is especially problematic when we are talking about actual people within our communities who face actual struggles and difficulties. These are ever-so-amplified by todays culture which bombards them day and night with the toxic mixture of “just be yourself”, “you are who you sleep with” and pride culture.
I do think educators and rabbis need to accept every individual person, every single Jew – as an individual – with open arms and an open heart. To help them – if they are interested – in growing and changing for the better throughout their life, even if some sins they will never be able to shake – whether it be their fault or almost entirely out of their hands. There are many such things in each of our lives. But I would argue there is very, very little between that and pride parade. I’d actually argue they are diametrically opposed.]


[An interesting offshoot of the main conversation developed and revolved around how LGBTQ individuals are treated in today’s society in general and in Israel in particular]

Post #4

In what way are LBGTQ people in Israel – or anywhere else in the Western world – oppressed? What “shame, humiliation and homophobia do they encounter on a daily basis”? In today’s culture one gets celebrated when identifying as LBGTQ and humiliated when saying anything that even sounds like any type of criticism of LBGTQ culture. Really not sure what you are referring to.


Post #5

Regretfully, hate crimes – as well as other random acts of violence – do indeed take place in every country in the world and within every society. That have been said, I was very specific in my phrasing – I was referring to the claim that gays in Israel are oppressed. Maybe we will disagree on what constitutes oppression but I meant that in Israel – as in most (if not all) Western countries – there is no institutional oppression, no laws against, LGBTQ individuals.
For example, in many Western countries around the world acts of antisemitism are committed every so often. Including in the US. Hundreds, if not thousands, of individual incidents a year. (It would be interesting to check, percentage-wise, against which minority group more hate crimes are committed – LGBTQ or Jews – considering their respective proportion in the society). Even so, these many attacks against Jews in no way translates into “Jews are oppressed in the US”.

There are no laws against being Jewish, dressing Jewish or acting Jewish (assuming there was such a thing as dressing or acting Jewish). There are no laws against being gay, dressing gay or acting gay (assuming there was such a thing as dressing or acting gay).

The fact that there are evil people out there – actual bigots and racists, sadists, criminals, and other violent people – that has always been true and will, regretfully, continue to be true. They tend to be equal opportunity types – they’ll beat on people who are gay, Jewish, Indian, Muslim, Christian, women, overweight, very tall, very short, their own children and any other person/persons who can facilitate their anger and cruelty.

Luckily, we do not evaluate our societies based on the behaviors of such individuals, rather first and foremost based on the laws and the accepted norms of the countries and societies in which we live as well as how society views and handles those who break from those laws and norms.

Unless you have a different definition, I stand by my question – where in Israel, or any other Western country – do you see that LGBTQ individuals are oppressed?


Post #6

I am truly sorry and saddened to hear the way you were treated by a store vendor. I am quite certain that all decent people would, even those – like myself – who take great issue with pride parade. As I have outlined above, there are 2 completely different issues. The first being decent human behavior between one individual and another individual and the second, unrelated issue, being the political agenda and statement forwarded by pride parade.

That have been said, I would be happy to better understand what you are referring to in your second to last paragraph:
1. What are you referring to when you write that the Israeli government has “made the status of a quarter of its citizens lesser than Jews”? The only thing I can think this might be referring to is the “Nation-State law”. If that is what you are referring to, I fear you are misrepresenting it. That law does not lessen or discriminate against any individuals. Rather, it gives legal status to those things that define Israel as a Jewish State. Yes, this means that no other people – as a community – have communal, national rights in Israel. That is the founding principle of the State of Israel. Strangely enough, it had yet to be put into legislation.

2. You say you have seen on TV rabbis saying gays are perverts. Without, at the moment, getting into what they were saying, to whom they were saying it and what they were trying to achieve, I imagine that – like me – you saw it on TV in the context of it being condemned by practically everyone across the spectrum of Israeli society. They were not said by guests, invited respectfully to participate in panel discussions in TV studios. They were quotes and recordings presented in mainstream media as examples of primitive thought and deplorable educational messages. Not only that. For days, the media interviewed rabbi after rabbi, who was called upon (and most all agreed) to criticize those statements and wash their hands of those phrases.

To claim that those 2-3 statements by rabbis who said that gays are perverts in anyway represents Israeli society – or Orthodox rabbis as a whole – feels dishonest.

3. You write that the government has banned gay men from having families. I imagine you are referring to the surrogacy law. The surrogacy law is a far, far more complex issue than the question of “should gay men be able to have a family”. I would argue that it is only a small – and by no means the most important – aspect of it. Many, many of the most progressive countries in the world have severe restrictions on commercial surrogacy. (Countries in which commercial surrogacy is illegal: Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Holland, Switzerland and UK. Countries in which commercial surrogacy is permitted: Armenia, Georgia, Russia and Ukraine). The primary reason for the prohibition in these many liberal countries is to protect underprivileged women who otherwise would be susceptible to selling their wombs or other people forcing them to do so. It has very little, if anything, to do with gay rights to adopt or bear children together. Yes, it is true that there is an overlap of the issues. Among other things because opening the option of surrogacy to include gay couples would highly increase the demand for surrogates, as their options for having children are far more limited than any other type of couple.

To say a law was passed in Israel to bans gay men from having families simply is not true. What happened was that the very restrictive law was not expanded to include them – as well as other peoples and groups. There is a very big difference between the two.

 

Post #7

You claim it was a big Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of Hashem’s name) that there were so many people at the pride parade wearing Kippot. I think we may have very, very different definitions for what constitutes a Kiddush Hashem. The sources I draw my understanding of Kiddush Hashem from, are the contexts in which the Torah mentions Kdusha. Most of which surround refraining from natural, instinctive behaviors which are forbidden by the Torah, for variety of reasons (e.g. of appearances of Kedusha: having sexual relations with certain people, eating certain things, working certain times). I’d be interested in understanding how you understand Kdusha that would define participation in a pride parade as a Kiddush Hashem – and where you draw that understanding from.

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Filed under Education, Halacha, Morality, Uncategorized

Women and Halachic change – Can vs. Should

We can do itTo what degree, if at all, should Halacha change to reflect the change in women’s status in society? My approach to the subject has fluctuated over the years as I was exposed to a range of opinions and perspectives. It has been one of those “thought journeys” that have accompanied me for many years and in the (not too short) following piece, I will attempt to formalize it.

I will start with what is, for me, an important foundation to the discussion. I have tremendous trust in our tradition, in our history and in our communal identity, three things I believe to be one in the same. I do not believe that one can separate between who we are as a people – our communal identity – and the traditions, laws, customs, practices and even methodologies that have been part of our communal life for so long. Because of this great respect and trust I have for our tradition, my base assumption is that tremendous care needs to be taken when considering changes that represent, or can cause, changes to this identity. This means that my fundamental approach to formalized, communal change in these matters is, from the onset, one of extreme care and the default is – and should remain – the situation as it has been for centuries. I trust that if a norm or standard have been part of our national/communal identity for so long, there is a good reason for it and that it is very risky to fiddle with it. In other words, I like thinking of myself as an extreme traditionalist. By no means does this always result in an approach of saying “no” or always being more stringent. Many examples exist throughout Halachic literature demonstrating that “keeping things as they are”, can result in leniency; Eruv, Hash’haya on Shabbat and making Kiddush on a shot-glass, to name some better known examples. A good example, from my own personal life, can be found here (chapter 1) and there are many such examples in Halachic literature.

Based on this introduction, I’d suggest that when discussing the question of institutionalized Halachic change, the Halachic question is only one of several which needs to be considered, namely:

  1. Can it change?
  2. Should it change?
  3. What will be the price of the change?

‘Can it change’ is a purely Halachic question. e.g: when discussing women reading publicly from the Torah – What is the obligation of reading the Torah in public? Are women included in that obligation? Is there an issue with hearing a woman’s voice in religious matters? what is the definition of a צבור (community)? what defines כבוד הציבור (the community’s honor) – is it an objective, static, criteria defined by Chazal or is it subject to change as the concept of community changes? is there possibly a third option? etc… Similarly, other issues have their own questions that need consideration and discussion.

I believe that answering this category of questions is actually fairly easy. Not necessarily easy to come to a definitive conclusion but easy to answer, none the less. Utilizing the traditional approaches to sources, precedents and Halachic methodology, Poskim discuss, analyze, deduce and argue the different points of these and other such questions, and apply them accordingly. They won’t always agree, obviously, but it is clear enough to understand how they reached their respective conclusions and follow accordingly.

Let’s say, for a moment, that we’ve reached the conclusion that a certain change in Halachic norm is not against Hlacha – one way or another. At this point, I think we need to consider question number 2 – ‘should Halacha change?’ Meaning, just because something isn’t forbidden, or just because something is permissible, doesn’t necessarily mean it should be done. Halacha isn’t just a list of does and don’ts.

This is a much harder question to answer than the first one, as I don’t believe there are clear sources to draw clear answers from. It is not simply a question of which sources should and shouldn’t be included and the different ways to interpret and apply them. As previously stated, I am a big believer in “כל המשנה-ידו על התחתונה” (“He who wants to make a change- has a lower hand”). I believe that things that have to do with the identity of The Jewish People as it has formed over millennia- among other things, through Halachic norms – should remain the same. The only reason I can see for making institutional changes – in the norms themselves – is in order to maintain that same core identity of what and who we are. I realize, of course, this may seem like a very amorphous question – what are the core values and identity of The Jewish People? – and I am ok with that. Let us have it out, discuss and argue what are the values and ideals most consistent with Jewish identity throughout the ages. But as far as the question of changing Halachic norms, I’d suggest using the following consideration to ascertain whether the change is or isn’t consistent with Communal Jewish Identity. Is the change in the Halachic system (or even in a specific community) a response to the needs of individuals or a response to the need of the system/community itself? Meaning, there are a lot of factors that contribute to individuals wanting Halachic norms to change. Some of them are rooted in real issues and pains while others may stem from personal weaknesses, persuasions and even cultural influences. Either way, it does not seem logical to make institutionalized changes to such a large, complex and important institution just because a certain person – or group of people – happen to think/feel at a certain point in time they have an issue with it. It makes far more sense to say that the community does not need to change for the sake of the individual rather the community only needs to change for the sake of the community itself. one vs. many

A few examples to illustrate the distinction I am trying to make.

  1. When wealthy individuals weren’t lending money to poor people before Shmita, it was a problem for individuals, which Halacha dealt with locally by threatening and sanctioning such behavior. But when many, if not most, people stopped lending money to the poor before Shmita, it became a problem of the system itself, where the effort to keep Halacha (שמיטת כספים) for the sake of the poor, was causing the exact opposite – no one was lending money to the poor for years beforehand. Enter Pruzbul, one of the most radical changes in Halacha in history.
  2. A woman not getting a Get (Halachik divorce document) because her husband is a jerk – a problem of an individual, which Halacha must do its best to solve. Thousands of women not getting Gittin over decades of years – because the system that was put in place to address the issue is no longer effective – a problem of the system itself, as instead of strengthening the institution of marriage, it is in danger of weakening it.
  3. An individual who is not Halachically Jewish wants to marry someone Jewish without converting and is not allowed to – a problem for that individual and their Jewish partner. Hundreds of thousands of non-Jews already marrying Jews while remaining part of the Jewish Community, is already a problem for the system itself, as the mechanism aimed at preventing intermarriage is the one causing it to happen on a massive scale.

All three of the above cases illustrate well the difference between individuals having issues with the Halachic system and the system itself having an issue. It is important to emphasize that I am by no means saying that Halacha does not or should not have solutions for individuals who are suffering due to Halachic restrictions or regulations. Halacha has always known how to be extremely flexible in order to try and spare individuals injustices, suffering and harm. But that is not the issue at hand, which is that of changing Halachic norms, institutionally. One has to do with changing the lives of individuals while the other has to do with changing the life of the Jewish People. That should be a much more serious and complicated matter.

One could argue that if indeed there isn’t a prohibition on a certain thing, or that it could be permissible – why not do it, even if just for the sake of those individuals who are interested, or in actual need? Let alone if an issue seems to be heading in the direction of becoming a communal/institutional problem?

This is where the 3rd question comes in –  “what is the price of the change?” Halacha is a highly complex system comprised of hundreds of thousands of details, ideas, concepts, arguments and customs. It has been evolving and taking shape slowly for thousands of years, sustaining (and sustained by) millions of individuals and communities across the world. It is both an expression of, and a contributor to, so much of who we are. It has contributed to some of the greatest moral and societal transformations not only within The Jewish People but in all of humanity as well, throughout history. And one of the most amazing things about it is that there is no actual institution enforcing it. It is sustained by the millions of people who, throughout our history, chose – and continue to choose – to be committed to it. That is really the only thing that sustains it. The notion of fiddling with it – on an institutional level – to better fit with momentary sensitivities of individual people, I find to be foolish and irresponsible. Most importantly, it ignores the price that is paid when making institutional changes. One needs to think carefully – what is being gained by the change and what is being lost.

The fact that there is a price to pay, that something will be lost doesn’t automatically mean that the change should not be made, just that it needs to be acknowledged and evaluated to decide whether the gain outweighs, or is worth, the loss.

 

A few examples of how the above questions and considerations would be applied:

1. Woman’s Torah study:

‘Could it change?’ without going into the details and sources at the moment- yes, there was the Halachic possibility of permitting women to formally study and be taught Torah, including the Oral Law, something that had not been done traditionally.

‘Should it have changed?’ using the criteria we set above – was this a need of individuals or of the community – I think it was a communal need. The first Jewish schools for girls opened, among other things, as a response to growing poverty in the Jewish Community as well as growing exposure to the non-Jewish world. Without starting to educate women formally the community would suffer economically and socially as women would not be equipped to face the challenges of a growing secular society, especially as they began entering the workforce.

‘What was the price of the change?’ there was definitely a price to the change – changing the spousal and family dynamic, as women became more knowledgeable, capable and confident in many areas they were not previously. These included finances, religious matters and eventually also politics. Even so, I would argue that none of these were areas in which women were not involved at all, rather, they were less involved. Women had their own financial rights and standings and were always heavily involved in religious matters within the home. So, one could argue that though there was a price to pay for this change – a possible destabilization of the traditional balance within families due to women’s education – it was far outweighed by the financial stability and religious fortitude gained by it.

 

2. Women joining a Minyan

‘Can it change?’ The short answer is, no, it cannot. Based on studying the Sugiyot and relevant sources, it is my opinion that women cannot be counted as part of a Minyan for דברים שבקדושה (“things to be said in holiness”- Kadish, Kdusha and others) and as far as I am concerned, the discussion on that topic ends there and therefore: ‘Should it change?’ – irrelevant, ‘What is the price of the change’ – irrelevant.

 

3. Women becoming rabbis

‘Can it change?’ Yes, I hold that it can. Based on what I have learned and read I do not think there is a Halachic issue with women becoming rabbis. This is mainly due to the fact that the roles filled by rabbis today are no longer roles of coercive authority and therefore there is no issue for women to serve as Halachic advisers, spiritual guides and teachers (A.K.A rabbis today).

‘Should it change?’ using my criteria of ‘needs of individuals’ vs. ‘needs of the community’, I think the answer is ‘no, it shouldn’t change’. I do not think there is a national situation which requires such a drastic change. I don’t think there is a national or communal problem that this change addresses. To my knowledge, there is no lack of rabbis in the Jewish World and not even a lack of liberal, women’s-issues-oriented-rabbis. The main reason it is being discussed is because there are individuals, maybe even groups, who feel excluded and think it would allow them to better connect to Torah, Hashem and tradition. I’m not saying I disagree with their sincerity or with the fact that it very well may allow those individuals to truly be more engaged in Torah and Mitzvot. What I am claiming is that I don’t think that is a good enough reason for society to change.

‘What is the price of the change?’ Beyond the ‘classic’ claims such as ‘the unity of the Jewish People (today and throughout history)’ I think there is a much bigger issue and danger – changing the balance of a male dominated public sphere. I am fully aware of how objectionable this may sound to many people today. But, there is no denying that Torah does not see men and women equally, especially when it comes to the public sphere. One can like or dislike the Torah’s fundamental presentation of the balance between the sexes but it is there, none the less. On the one hand, Torah does not ignore women but women appear in it as the ‘other’ and, mostly, as (consistent) supporting figures.

One could try and explain it away as a result of just being a reflection of the power structure that existed during the times being described and that seeing as the power balance has changed (has it?) so should Torah’s take on it but then we are right back where we started from.

Personally, I would argue that the Torah’s approach is not just the result of old fashioned patriarchal structure, rather something far deeper that goes to the core of how Torah sees society. (see * at the end of this page for a more in depth explanation on this)

Regardless of whether you accept my specific explanation, or dismiss it as apologetics, one cannot deny that the Torah establishes a very certain social paradigm. Whether it be a result of theology, anthropology or evolution, the Torah does not view men and women as equal when it comes to their place in society and having men as the spiritual and legal leaders of the Jewish Community maintains that structure. I am sure that many people reading this are thinking – ‘yes! That is exactly what we want to change!’ I understand that but fundamentally disagree with the sentiment. It may be worth looking carefully at western countries in which the more drastic changes have taken place in these areas and see whether it has strengthened or weakened society as a whole, with an emphasis on long term variables.

Even so, what happens if and when the issue goes from being that of individuals to that of the community? For instance, if there is a lack of male rabbis, or that there is a large-scale issue with the ability of rabbis to address the needs of their communities? (Good examples of this are the ‘family purity advisers’ and the female rabbinical advocates, both of whom are dealing with large scale problematic phenomena that just happen to also effect a lot of women.)

If and when that happens I believe the change should be made, and chances are, it would be well on its way to happening already. I’d like to believe, though, that it would happen in a far more organic way, one which would preserve those ideals of Torah regarding society’s structure. As I have stated previously, I have tremendous trust in the system of Halacha as an embodiment of the collective identity of the Jewish People and that, as it has for the past 3500 years, it – eventually – knows what it is doing.


Some final thoughts:

1. Assuming my distinction, of “the needs of the community not the needs of individuals” is correct, the question then becomes – how do we know what is an individual need vs. a communal one? Is it just a matter of numbers? Is it just a matter of time, until the problem gets bigger and prevalent enough? Also, who decides when an issue if big or deep enough to justify an institutional change?

I must admit I do not have a definitive answer to these questions but I know that it isn’t any one person or one community within the Jewish People. It needs to be something or someone who represents and expresses the will of the collective of the Jewish People. Maybe it is the Government of Israel or its Rabbinic arm, the Chief Rabbinate (as an institution, not necessarily as Rabbi X or Rabbi Y…). Part of me wonders if it is only through the perspective of history that the Jewish People pass judgment on such things – that which has been accepted by the nation and that which has not.

2. The last question which I think needs to be addressed is what about those individuals who feel they can’t wait until the rest of the Jewish People “catch up” or figure out what they are certain is correct? What about those people who have difficulty feeling connected to, and inspired towards, a committed life of Torah because of a very real feeling of personal or ideological injustice?

A. As the Rolling Stones put it, “You can’t always get what you want”. As someone who works with kids and youth, I often wonder if we do as good a job as them in accepting authority. This might sound very counter-intuitive but, as adults, how often do we do things that we actually do not wish to do, or don’t believe we have/need to do, just because an authority figure told us to? (“so I don’t get fired/caught”, obviously, doesn’t count. Neither does “I don’t feel like it but I know it is the right thing to do”). Meaning, do we still have a sense of קבלת עול towards anything or anyone? Among them – towards Chachamim, towards our tradition, towards Hashem? That is what I think might be required in some of these cases. Accepting that as long as they choose to be part of this system of a committed life to Halachic Torah and Mitzvot they may have to “suffer” for the sake of the community, its time-frame and processes.

B. We live in a time of extreme privatization and entrepreneurship of Torah and Mitzvot. If a person feels that this issue is impeding their ability to live a committed and meaningful life of Torah and Mitzvot (which I believe could indeed be the case for some people) they are welcome to start their own Minyan, or to practice however they see fit. To put it in a Mei Hashiloach language – if you are convinced it is coming from a place of yearning to do Hashem’s will and you have eliminated other influences – laziness, pride, lust, etc… then go ahead and do it. That is your “Cheshbon” with Hashem. Just don’t expect us, the community, to give it our seal of approval or like it. Be prepared to do it alone, or with other likeminded people without expecting the community to change to fit with your individual, subjective convictions.

3. I know how tensions run high in these discussions and hope that even if no one is convinced by what I wrote, people will at least realize that there is a very good case to be made for a more traditional, conservative (small ‘C’) approach to changes in Halacha due to changes in societal norms, including in the question of women and Halacha.


* So many of these discussions seem to revolve around the ‘rights’ argument. That women, in general, or a specific woman should have the right to participate, share, express “just like men”, or to express themselves “to the fullest”. These types of arguments have a fundamental assumption which I find to be incorrect and extremely problematic. By no means is it exclusive for the discussion about women’s role in Halacha but it is one of the areas it is the most present. I recently completed a separate post on this exact topic, so will just summarize it as follows: I don’t believe the Torah believes in the concept of rights. The Torah believes in obligations, not rights. For instance, as a non-Kohen, I’m not being denied the right to serve on the Mizbe’ach in Beit Hamikdash, rather, I am not obligated to do so. Because I lack that status of obligation, I cannot enter certain places in Beit Hamikdash, even if being there would allow me a closeness to Hashem I would not attain elsewhere. I cannot eat certain foods, even if their holiness would significantly enhance my religious engagement and fulfillment. I would not be permitted to go up to the Duchan and bless the community (with a Bracha) during the priestly prayer just because I (honestly!) feel the love of Hashem to The Jewish People flow through me. This is all true, even if because of them Kohanim have more influence on the religious sphere within Am Yisrael. Whether it is supposed to be part of the result or just an indirect result is a worthy but separate question. I use this example, of a non-Kohen vs. Kohen, as it is easier to accept the distinction between ‘rights’ and ‘obligations’ in it. Most of us would look very strangely at the request of a non-Kohen to be permitted to practice as much of the Kohanic obligations as very, very odd. Torah teaches us to look first and foremost at “what does Hashem your God ask from you” and practically every single time Hashem speaks to someone in the Torah it is to command and relay expectations. And Torah’s expectations from men and women are different. That much is crystal clear. Why is that the case?
Answer 1 – don’t know, don’t care. It’s about fulfilling your obligations and different people have different obligations. Some of those different jobs can be categorized along the male-female line, others along the Kohen-non Kohen line, others along the single-married line and others along the Israel-outside of Israel line.
Answer 2 – The approach I personally identify with the most is the theological one, which sees the different roles Torah designates men and women as part of how Hashem created the world. In the first creation story man and woman are described as being created together, as one entity – “ויקרא שמם אדם” (“and he named them Adam”). Later, in the second creation story, man is described as being created first and women being created second, from him and as his counterpart. In these very different descriptions, I think Torah is saying it all.
Often, people like referencing the first creation story to prove that Torah’s fundamental approach and its original ideal is that of total equality between man and woman. But that is not the picture the Torah is depicting. It doesn’t describe them as equals, rather as one and the same. One whole creation which has two components to it, two aspects to it. The Torah’s topic is that complete unit. It is to that 2-aspected, single unit, that Hashem commands “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth”. The single man and the single woman are not really the main focus of the Torah, as it sees it as an incomplete state of being. Its topic is the “duo which is one”.
In chapter two we discover what role each component plays in the whole. Just as a body has internal organs and external organs, it seems the Torah designates the “man-component” of the complete unit to be the dominant force when it comes to the outside world – the external organs – while Torah designates the “woman-component” of the unit to be dominant when it comes to the internal world.
(I’m not even going to go the route of “which is more important internal or external organs?” to try and emphasize the importance of women, as – although I don’t necessarily disagree with it – I find it reeks too much of apologetics for most people’s pallets today and it doesn’t really fit with the analogy I am using. One is irrelevant without the other. A person cannot live without internal organs and a person cannot live without external organs.)
I would argue that the biological differences evolutionists identify as the cause of all the social differences between men and women are the exact opposite – the result of the different roles God designated for them as part of a complete, unified, entity.

 

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Filed under Halacha, Morality

You have no right. No one does. To anything.

The right to marry, the right to adopt, the right to choose one’s gender, the right to one’s body, the right to free speech, the right to bare arms and the list of rights goes on. These and many other rights are part of the “rights conversation” which has been increasingly dominating Western politics and social order in recent years.

symbols_humanrights

This phenomena has not passed over the Jewish and Orthodox worlds, with woman’s communal roles, LGBTQ’s in the community, marriage postponement, family planning and other similar questions becoming the delineating lines along which Jews have come to define their religious orientation. And, as is happening in general society, the individual rights argument is playing an increasingly dominant role in these discussions and slowly transforming institutions and conventions previously unchanged for generations.

Those trying to stand in the way of these changes find themselves, many times, defending Torah against the ‘rights conversation’. Some, attempt to reconcile the two by trying to prove how Torah’s ideals and guidelines are the true individual rights, while others try and explain how Torah defines these rights – or their parameters – differently. Until recently, I was a proponent of highlighting the rights of the community/Jewish Nation/Jewish People Throughout History, as opposed to the rights of the individual. Even so, I’ve always felt an uneasiness with these approaches, feeling they were more apologetics than anything else and lacked an independent, consistent, stance on the matters.

I recently realized why we seem to be losing the battle – within our own communities. This is because in the way in which we most often discuss these matters we unwittingly accept the premise of the arguments we are trying so desperately to reject; that people have unalienable, immutable rights. Then the question just becomes – how far do those rights extend? There is little surprise, then, that the rights conversation continues to expand and eat away at social conventions that just a few years ago were almost unthinkable.

Like many people, I simply knew something was “off” with the entire discussion but couldn’t put my finger on it. I think the reason for this is the degree to which we, in the Jewish and Orthodox world, are steeped in Western Civilization and therefore have difficulty drawing logical lines between “acceptable” rights and non “acceptable” ones. After searching for years for the elusive line between the rights which fit with Torah and those that do not and struggling with the troubling range left open for interpretation and personal biases, it finally came to me.

It is still a working theory but here it is – I’m pretty sure Torah doesn’t believe in the concept of rights. I can’t think of a single case or example in the Torah where someone has an inherent right. To anything. It seems that whenever God spoke to people in the Torah it was to let them know what they are expected to do – their obligation. You, as a parent, do not have the right to be respected by your children rather, your children have the obligation to respect you. The two are not the same thing. I don’t have the right to live as much as you have the prohibition not to kill me (or the obligation to not let me die). The Jewish People don’t have a right to the Land of Israel, rather, we have the obligation to live in it, conquer and settle it. Kohanim don’t have the right to serve in Beit Hamikdash as opposed to non-Kohanim, rather they have an obligation to do so.  The more I think about it the more it seems that in the Torah itself it is all about obligations and I think this is because of something even more fundamental that lay at the core of how Torah sees the world.

Simply put, we live in Hashem’s world. We did not create ourselves, we did not create the world we live in, we do not sustain ourselves, or it, every moment of every day. As such, Torah assumes our existence is for a purpose which transcends our individual, all too temporary, lives. Our entire existence serves someone and something else – be it God, Divine Justice, Jewish Destiny or any other divinely inspired ideal. Therefore, a person’s life ought to be driven by gratitude and servitude. Our entire lives are expected to be one, long, continuous “thank you”, translated into a “what am I supposed to do”. All of this is the antithesis to some of the most foundational concepts of Western Civilization, as they developed since the mid 17th Century through the enlightenment, all the way to today with the emphasis of natural rights and the autonomous man.

I do believe that these were important ideas and key developments within Western Civilization which have benefited the world greatly and even that some of them stem from Jewish and scriptural influences. But, just because these concepts helped free Western Civilizations from the tyranny of the church, of the Monarchy or the Feudal System, doesn’t make them theologically correct and definitely not necessarily for every era and community.

I do think that when we come to Chazal’s world – the oral law and the world of Halacha – we do begin to encounter something similar to rights but the fact that in Torah itself we do not, rather only encounter obligations, outlines the fundamental outlook of Torah as being diametrically opposed to what has become the theological and political paradigm within which we live.

I realize that saying that we do not believe in rights sounds troubling. I’m not saying that on a practical level no one has any rights, rather, that when we come to think of how these discussions and debates fit with Torah we need to realize that Torah has a completely different outlook on the human condition and is coming at these questions from an entirely different perspective. I have found this line of thinking and argumentation extremely powerful when considering the topic myself or discussing it with others. It doesn’t just ‘win by points’ by arguing against a specific point, rather, it offers a completely different moral – and theological – outlook at society and the human condition. And one need not necessarily accept the Torah’s outlook as I have outlined it to understand that attacking Torah based on the individual rights conversation doesn’t make much sense, considering the different world view. Whether a person chooses to prescribe to the ‘rights conversation’ or the ‘obligation conversation’ is entirely up to them but it is important to realize the significance of that choice and the different types of societies each of them envisions and aspires to.

I do think that, many times, Halacha can come to the same practical conclusions as those led by the individual rights conversation but I think they arrive there in a very different way, which makes all the difference. (I hope to share some examples of this in the near future).

I’d like to conclude this long train of thought with the famous opening of the Mesilat Yesharim (Path of The Just): “The foundation of piety and the root of perfect service is for a man to clarify and come to realize as truth what is his obligation in the world and to what he needs to direct his gaze and his aspiration in all that he toils all the days of his life”.

 

 

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Filed under Morality, Politics, Theology

Modern Orthodoxy Vs. Religious Zionism (Part 2)

It has been over 3 years since my first discussion on the topic of Modern Orthodoxy Vs. Religious Zionism and I have been mulling over it ever since. In recent months a public debate has arisen in Israel surrounding the question “is there such a thing as Religious-Zionist Psika”. At the same time, in the US the debate between Modern Orthodoxy and newly named “Open Orthodoxy” continues to bubble in the background of many public debates. Though none of these terms are “real” terms, meaning, terms which have Halachik-legal definitions they are ideologies and outlooks which deeply effect both societal norms and, I would argue, the Halachik approaches and decisions of rabbis in these communities. (I am aware that there are those who would strongly disagree with my premise that Halachik deciscors are influenced by predisposed ideologies and rather hold that they interpret the Halachik sources based exclusively on an objective Halachik understanding. Though there is room for a discussion whether that should or should not, ideally, be the case – or even possible – I believe it is very naive to pretend that is not the reality of the Halachik world today, especially when it comes to socially sensitive topics).

This in mind, I will do my best to define the terms based on living in both communities – both in Israel and North America – having studied directly from several prominent rabbis from both communities and having learned and read extensively from their Torahs and writings.

Modern Orthodoxy is what it sounds like – an Orthodox outlook which is informed by and responds to Modernity, seeing value in the phenomena. These include, among other things, the recognition – and value – in the change in the status of women in society, the necessity – and value – of modern scholarship and study, and the positive approach towards the State of Israel. According to this approach, Zionism is just one more phenomena which is a positive outcome of Modernity and as such – we have a positive and inclusive approach to it as part of our Orthodox life. The degree to which ones Orthodoxy is effected – and in what way – by their Modernity seems to be just that – a difference of degree (The baseline seems to be “To what degree does this phenomena fit with our Orthodoxy”? with some taking it a bit further asking “can we make it fit enough?” while some go even further stating “how can we make it fit, period”).

Religious Zionism, on the other hand, is not exactly what it sounds like. Religious Zionism is not the combination of 2 things and is not the relationship between 2 competing ideals. Religious Zionism sees itself as THE Zionism and as THE (Jewish) Religion; a religion which is one in the same with “true” Zionism – the existence of the Jewish People as a Priestly Kingdom and a Holly Nation, meaning – the life of the collective that is The Jewish People  in the Land of Israel according to the Torah of Israel. According to this approach one of the vehicles, or catalysts, to the re-emergence of the Jewish collective is Modernity. But Modernity is not the root cause of political Zionism and the State of Israel. The divine destiny of The Jewish People is. Modernity allowed for that destiny to materialize, almost like a stage which has – finally – been completed for actors who have been practicing for all too long. Therefore, the question that is always in the background of RZ discussions – both ideological and Halachik – is “what is the essentialist character and destiny of Am Yisrael and the best way to realize it?” Modernity is just one more tool through which this may be done.

Meaning, Modern Orthodoxy values Zionism as one more product of Modernity while Religious Zionism has no inherent stance on Modernity at all. This can explain the fact that, while there are many similarities between the communities, there are several key issues they usually find themselves almost completely opposed on.

A few examples:

  1. Tzniut – the prevailing Modern Ortodox approach puts more of an emphasis on the balance in ones individual life between internal and external beauty and spirituality and the exclusivity of the physical relationship to building a unique bond with ones spouse. The prevailing Religious Zionist approach puts more of an emphasis on צניעות as a national characteristic which distinguishes us from other nations, building strong families, which builds a strong and holly nation. As a result of this difference, the Tzniut norms in Religious Zionist communities is higher with many Religious Zionist rabbis holding Halachik approaches – for both men and women – more similar to those of Satmer than those of the Modern Orthodox community. (this also accounts for the growing phenomena of both young men and women in the Religious Zionist community in Israel who have developed unique dress styles, which are both צנוע but also distinct from other cultures, especially Western culture. In a bit of a reverse logic, this also accounts for the fact that, in practicality, there seems to be more of a lax approach among educators and teens in Religious Zionism towards the actual observance of these higher standards, which is a result of the fact that the core educational emphases are different).
  2. Shmita – the prevailing Modern Orthodox approach is that Shmita is one more Mitzvah which the individual Jew should be on the “safe side of”, leading to many Modern Orthodox rabbis (especially in America) to beware of היתר מכירה and אוצר בית דין. The Religious Zionist approach, however, sees Shmita as a test case for the collective observance of a Mitzvah that defines the return to The Land. New factors have been added into the equation, such as the effect Shmita will have on Israeli agriculture and Israeli financial independence. As a result there is a strong endorsement of היתר מכירה and אוצר בית דין whereas יבול נוכרי is treated as אסור, almost as Treif.
  3. Settling the Land of Israel – The prevailing Modern Orthodox approach is that living in the Land of Israel is A Mitzvah which we are once again fortunate to be able to observe in our generation – if you are able to. In the Religious Zionist world, on the other hand, it is seen as the Mitzvah of our generations, as it is the foundation for the realization of the destiny of The Jewish People which is unfolding in front of our eyes. It is seen as as significant to what it means to be Jewish as Shabbat and Kashrut, possibly even more so. This also accounts for another difference – the question of “Land for Peace”. A fairly common approach within the Modern Orthodox world is that, on a theoretical level, if peace with the Palestinians were possible portions of the land should be given in exchange. The predominant approach in the Religious Zionist community and its rabbinic circles sees the mere suggestion as Jewishly repugnant.

Other examples include topics as varied as “family planning” and contraceptives, the celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut as a religious holiday (including shaving during Sfira), the attitude towards the Conservative and Reform movements, the status of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, reliance on non Mehadrin Kashrut and the Halachik weight of the plight and voices of the various “others” within the community. By no means do these differences always translate into Modern Orthodox – lenient, Religious Zionist – stringent. The last 2 are good examples of the reverse. Also, by no means do these differences translate into Modern Orthodox – North America rabbis and communities, Religious Zionist – Israeli rabbis and communities. There are plenty of rabbis and communities in Israel who have strong Modern Orthodox leanings, be it because they originate from Modern Orthodox communities in the US or have adopted a Modern Orthodox outlook after being exposed and influenced by some of its proponents.

I admit that this is an oversimplification of a variety of issues and questions which deserve a much more individualized discussion. Many rabbis, including some leading authorities, would not fit so snugly into the boxes I have depicted here and you will find their Halachik rulings crossing the ideological lines just drawn. Individual rabbis will inevitably find themselves taking a stance on each topic based on their understanding of the relevant sources, their tradition of Psika and their evaluation of reality. Even so, I still believe that what has been laid out here explains the major trends and differences between the communities, as best evident in their extremes as well as by the changes the communities have experienced in the past few decades.

Why is this discussion important?

There is a mistaken thought that the Modern Orthodox community in the US and the Religious Zionist community in Israel are the same community with minor, cultural, differences. That they are 2 sides of the same coin with the 2 sides just being the sides of the Atlantic Ocean; that Religious Zionism is the Israeli version of Modern Orthodoxy and that Modern Orthodoxy is the American version of Religious Zionism. That is not true. (Just ask Americn Olim who live anywhere in Israel other than Gush Etzion, Chashmonaim and certain parts of Yerushalaim and Modi’in). There is, of course, a lot of overlap and there are many people – and rabbis – who embody a combination in their personalities and their Torah approach but, the whole context and orientation of the communities are different.

This, I believe, is a reason why the Religious Zionist community in Israel is not only continuously growing in numbers but have, arguably, become the most influential force in Israel society today, while the Modern Orthodox community in the US seems stagnant, not only in its size but more importantly, by a sense of paralysis due to the dialectic values and groups it has difficulty continuing to encompass (some great insights on the state of Modern Orthodoxy in the US by Prof. Jack Wertheimer can be read here).

In North America, recognizing the differences can, hopefully, encourage the Modern Orthodox community to reflect and realize what is missing from its ideology, what emphases are lacking from its internal discourse and more importantly – from its educational philosophy and institutions, a topic I hope to explore soon in a separate post.

In Israel, on the other hand, this can help explain some of the vocal debates in recent years between what seem to be different factions within the Religious Zionist community, with some having a far more Modern Orthodox approach to modernity – and much that comes with it – while others, as stated, having no inherent approach to it at all.

On a personal note, when trying to figure out my own “place” in this discussion I have found myself, over the years, on what seemed to be conflicting sides of some of the specific issues. I have finally understood why. When it comes to my private life – I am Modern Orthodox but when it comes to the public sphere – I am a Religious Zionist.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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