Posted by Rabbi Barry Gelman
A few weeks ago I spoke in shul about the ongoing crisis in Beit Shemesh, Israel where a group of extremist Chareidim are attempting to intimidate the Religious Zionist / Modern Orthodox community. There has been rock throwing, spitting, verbal abuse and threats.
After the sermon a number of people asked if there is anything that our community can do to support the community under attack.
Follow this link to learn how you cna respond in a productive manner.
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January 16, 2012 | 12:36 pm
Posted by Rav Yosef Kanefsky
“The first of the bill of rights for a frumme yid (religious Jew) is not freedom of speech! There is NO freedom of speech and freedom to write in our constitution [the Ten Commandments]!” This was the fiery climax of Rabbi Shimshon Sherer’s talk at the Agudah convention last November. His comments were directed at Rabbi Nosson Slifken specifically (see here especially) , and modern expressions of Orthodoxy (including this very blog) generally. Rabbi Sherer continued to exclude not only freedom of speech from proper religious life, but also freedom of thought, reminding his audience that “total subservience to Daas Torah” is a Divinely ordained requirement.
As an attempt to describe and crystallize the difference between Modern and Haredi Orthodoxy, Rabbi Sherer’s effort is actually quite good . He has hit an important nail on the head. Though it was not his intention, he gives us “Moderns” an important lens through which to understand and ourselves and to appreciate the unique contribution we are called upon to make to Orthodox life – and well beyond.
As a quick aside - it’s important that we respect the freely-made decision of some Jews to surrender their personal freedom in favor of Daas Torah. Those who choose to do so reap significant harvests in terms of religious clarity and communal cohesiveness. They are following their religious consciences, and are genuinely striving to serve God in the surest possible way. Their Jewish decisions are sacred to them, no less than ours are to us. And in our day and age, when “opting out” is an available albeit difficult option, they really are decisions.
But as for us, we constitute a dramatically different spiritual community. We cherish, and believe implicitly in the fundamental goodness of freedom, most specifically the freedoms of inquiry, thought, and speech. Even more, we believe as an article of our faith, that we cannot possibly serve God properly if we fail to regularly and thoughtfully exercise these freedoms. Every fiber of our Modern Orthodox beings tells us that God demands that we think and imagine freely, and that we speak and write what we believe, for no other way of being could bring us to righteousness and truth. More than anything else, it is this belief in freedom that has drawn us together as the Modern Orthodox community.
Our practice of thinking and speaking freely over the past decades has yielded meaningful and deeply transformative results. How different and how religiously enriched we are for having freely explored the implications of the notion of Tzelem Elokim. How different and elevated (and halachikly grounded) are the ways we practice tzedaka and g’milut chasadim. How regularly do we sanctify the name of God through interacting with non-Jewish colleague and peers in ways that are genuinely characterized by mutual respect, and endowed with mutual appreciation. And what other part of the Orthodox community regards the sanctity of Medinat Yisrael as also being connected to the manner in which she treats minority populations in her midst?
Similarly, our soul’s deep calling to freely explore the wisdom of psychology and literature, history and archeology, has opened our eyes to readings of Biblical narratives and Midrashim, of Talmudic sugyot and aggadot that are not only novel, but which speak to the big questions and the profound concerns of modern living, and not only to the specific problems of Jewish existence. It was freedom that produced Rav Soloveitchik and Nechama Leibowitz, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Dr. Aviva Zornberg. And it has been the freedom to consider and explore the moral foundations of contemporary social movements, most notably feminism, that has brought Torah and mitzvot to girls and women in ways that they never historically experienced them before, a development that has strengthened us all. And as freely-thinking, halachikly-committed Orthodox Jews we will undoubtedly pursue the logical conclusions of the notion that gender is not relevant to a person’s innate spiritual dignity. It is obvious to us that freedom of thought is indispensible to realizing true Avodat Hashem.
What Rabbi Sherer’s comments should make us consider, is our responsibility to be clearer and more deliberate in articulating who we are and what we believe. Our passion for freedom is an object of suspicion in some Orthodox quarters because it is perceived as a force that will undermine Halachik observance and undercut the Torah’s authority. As members of the larger Orthodox community, we owe it to the Rabbi Sherer’s of the world to be as clear as we can, through our words and our deeds, that this is not the case. We of course need to be ever so clear about it within our own hearts as well. The way we speak about and observe Halacha must never suggest that we are interested in unburdening ourselves of anything, or searching for a way out of something. The truth that we need to always project, is that we are striving to serve God, and to do so in the ways that are truest to our deepest religious instincts and spiritual impulses, among them, the instinct that without freedom we will fall short of our Jewish, Orthodox, calling.
January 10, 2012 | 10:42 pm
Posted by Rabbi Zev Farber
-Rabbi Zev Farber was ordained (yoreh yoreh and yadin yadin) by YCT Rabbinical School. He is the founder of AITZIM (Atlanta Institute of Torah and Zionism) - an adult education initiative. Rabbi Farber serves on the board of the International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF) and is the coordinator of their Vaad Giyyur. He is also a PhD candidate at Emory University’s Graduate Division of Religion.
Few social issues facing the Orthodox Jewish community are as emotionally charged as that of the place of homosexuals, especially the gnawing question of the place of homosexual couples and families in the synagogue and larger community. Many rabbis are at a loss as to what to suggest to a gay Orthodox Jew who seeks guidance.
I once suggested the following thought experiment to a colleague: “If, for some reason, it became clear that the Torah forbade you to ever get married or to ever have any satisfying intimate relationship, what would you do?” My own reaction to this question is: although part of me hopes I would be able to follow the dictates of the Torah, I have strong doubts about the possibility of success, and I trust that my friends and colleagues would be supportive of me either way.
Not a Moral Issue
Unfortunately, much of the rhetoric traditionally surrounding homosexuality seems to derive from a confusion of categories. For the believing Orthodox Jew, homosexual congress is a religious offense, akin to eating shrimp or driving on the Sabbath. It is not a moral offense, akin to assaulting women or cheating in business. Much of the rhetoric around homosexuality seems to center on moral discourse, and I feel this is a serious mistake.
Although polemics surrounding homosexuality have taken various forms over the years, the driving force behind the current polemic is the changing view of homosexuality and its causes. In the past, the main claims against homosexuality were that the behavior was “deviant” and the act “unnatural.” The latter claim is inherently false, since the phenomenon in fact occurs in nature. The claim that the behavior is deviant is true in the sense that, statistically speaking, it deviates from the norm, but saying that someone has a minority sexual disposition is hardly in itself a moral critique.
Difference breeds fear, especially when that difference is hard to understand. It is difficult for many heterosexuals to imagine that it could be possible for a person to lack any attraction to members of the opposite sex. It is even more difficult for a heterosexual to picture being attracted to members of his or her own sex. This may be one reason why, for centuries, a contemptuous, even belligerent, attitude towards homosexuals was the norm.
An excellent, if sad, example of this is a letter by R. Moshe Feinstein written in 1976 (Iggrot Moshe OH 4:115), where he treats homosexual activity like any other choice. The letter is addressed to a young homosexual man asking R. Feinstein for some words of advice to help him control his urges. R. Feinstein endeavored to do so, informing him that there really is no such thing as homosexual desire. Nature dictates, R. Feinstein wrote, that people are attracted to members of the opposite sex and not to members of their own sex. Therefore, the only explanation for homosexual behavior was as an expression of rebellion against God. If one could only get one’s anger against God under control, one could live a “normal” heterosexual life. Nowadays we understand that this is not an accurate portrayal of homosexual desire, but R. Feinstein’s views were typical of his day and he could hardly have thought differently.
The Declaration and the Statement
The difference between the nature of the discourse in the seventies and the contemporary discourse is clearly demonstrated in the recent Declaration drafted by the right and center-right Orthodox communities and signed by over 150 rabbis, lay leaders and mental health professionals from those communities.
The declaration inspired mixed feelings in me. After reaffirming the forbidden nature of homosexual congress, the Declaration states unequivocally that homosexuality is a curable psychological – not genetic, not hormonal – disorder. It instructs the Orthodox community to treat homosexuals with kindness while guiding them towards reparative therapy.
Partly, I was relieved. The Declaration used phrases like “love, support and encouragement” as a description for how Orthodox people should feel about the homosexuals in their communities. That is a far cry from the bellicose homophobia that many have come to expect from fundamentalist religious groups.
On the other hand, I was also very disturbed. The Declaration advocates strongly for reparative or conversion therapy, a pseudoscientific and medically discredited practice that many professionals consider dangerous; the American Psychological Association goes so far as to say that any therapist who employs reparative therapy is in violation of the Hippocratic Oath.
The Declaration further argues that homosexuality must be both psychological and curable, since God could not be so cruel as to create people with homosexual urges and make it forbidden to act upon them – a theologically dubious argument to say the least. I would venture to say that anyone who is or who knows someone suffering from any of the countless debilitating life-long diseases would be taken aback by the claim that God would never create a person with a biological makeup that could ruin his or her life.
The Declaration seems to be a reaction to the “Statement of Principles” regarding homosexuality signed by 200 center and left-leaning Orthodox rabbis and community leaders the year before. Oddly enough, the left wing’s Statement of Principles, although considerably more sophisticated and nuanced than the recent Declaration, has much in common with it.
The Statement of Principles, like the Declaration, reaffirms the forbidden nature of homosexual congress. Unlike the Declaration, it allows that homosexuality is genetically and/or hormonally determined and admits that reparative therapy may be bogus and even harmful. The Statement, like the Declaration, urges the Orthodox community to treat homosexuals with love and respect. On the other hand, the Statement requires gay Orthodox Jews to be celibate. Although it urges understanding towards the non-celibate, the Statement suggests that if these homosexual Jews are open about their lifestyle – and the Statement affirms their right to be open about this – it would be the prerogative of an Orthodox synagogue or community not to accept them or give them any honors.
Although I appreciate the attempt by both groups to make homosexuals feel more welcome in our community and to tone down belligerent homophobia, both documents, in my view, fall short. Ever since I declined to sign the Statement – a document whose purpose I am strongly sympathetic with and which was crafted and signed by many close friends and mentors – I have given much thought to the Orthodox world’s relationship to homosexual Jews, sexually active and celibate alike, and what needs to be “stated” or “declared” about them.
The Need for Understanding and the Challenge of Empathy
For homosexual Jews wishing to live an Orthodox Jewish life and integrate into the Orthodox community, much empathy on the part of the heterosexual Orthodox community is required, especially from the rabbis. The signers of both the Declaration and the Statement are predominantly, perhaps entirely, heterosexuals. Many are married with families, as am I. Our families get together with other families for Shabbat meals and celebrate lifecycle events in the synagogue. Many of us receive communal approval for being married and for being good spouses. We have loving and fulfilling intimate relationships at home. Life is rather easy for us.
It is challenging for heterosexual Orthodox Jews to genuinely internalize the dissonance inherent in the psychological world of gay Orthodox Jews. Like all Orthodox Jews committed to a life of Torah and Jewish observance, Orthodox Jewish gay men and women want to participate fully in their communities. They want to come to synagogue and have Shabbat meals with their friends. And yet, the central text of their community – a text they love and venerate – forbids one of their most fundamental impulses, offering no viable alternative.
Asking the Impossible
In the documentary Trembling before God, R. Nathan Cardozo boldly states: “It is not possible for the Torah to come and ask a person to do something that he is not able to do. Theoretically speaking, it would be better for the homosexual to live a life of celibacy. I just would argue one thing – it’s completely impossible. It doesn’t work. The human force of sexuality is so big that it can’t be done.”
What we are asking of the homosexual Orthodox community is impossible. It is simply unrealistic to ask or expect normal adults to remain celibate and give up on the emotionally fulfilling and vital experience of intimate partnership that heterosexual men and women take for granted.
Oness Rahmana Patrei
My own approach to the matter is that the Orthodox community should adopt the stance of “oness rahmana patrei” – The Merciful One overlooks what is out of a person’s control. This was first suggested by R. Norman Lamm in the 1974 Encyclopedia Judaica Yearbook and I believe that this principle should serve as a basis for formulating an Open Orthodox response to the many challenges of accepting and integrating homosexuals into our community.
Brief Halakhic Analysis
The principle of oness rahmana patrei originates in a case where the deed in question was physically out of the person’s control. Nevertheless, the Talmud applies it to a case where a person worships idols to save his life (b. Avodah Zarah 54a). Many medieval commentaries ask why such a case should be considered oness, since a person can always accept death rather than violate Jewish law in this way. One answer to this question has been that a person who violates a Torah rule to save his or her life is emotionally compelled to do so and that this compulsion is a form of oness. I would argue that gay Orthodox Jews, earnestly seeking the same kind of emotionally satisfying intimate relationship taken for granted by heterosexual Jews, are similarly emotionally compelled.
[I am, of course, aware of the position staked out by Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Issurei Biah 1:9, Sanhedrin 20:3; also Maharshal, Yam Shel Shlomo, Yebamot 6:2) that oness never applies to male sexual intercourse since “ein qishui ella le-da’at”, i.e. male arousal is always purposeful. This position is vigorously questioned and debated by a number of Rishonim and Aharonim (see: Tosafot, Yebamot 53b s.v. she-ansuhu; Ramban, Yebamot 53b; Rashba Yebamot 53b; Rosh Yebamot 6:1; Maggid Mishna, Issurei Biah 1:9; Kessef Mishna, Sanhedrin 20:3; Radbaz, Deot 4:19, R. Elchonon Wasserman, Qovetz He’arot 59:3). A full analysis of oness rahmana patrei and its application to male sexual intercourse will have to wait for a different venue.]
Oness rahmana patrei has been applied over the years to a number of different cases in halakha, from permission not to move to Israel out of fear that the trip would be dangerous (Noda bi-Yehuda Tanina, EH 102), to a woman refusing to be intimate with her husband because she finds him repulsive (Tosafot Rid, Ketubot 64; R. Avraham Isaac Kook in Ezrat Kohen 55). Two precedents in particular serve as important analogies.
The first is the fact that many halakhic authorities treat suicide as an act of oness, committed under duress and consequently out of the person’s control (see, for example Arukh ha-Shulhan YD 345:5; Kol Bo al Aveilut pp. 318-321). This sensitive halakhic approach allows the family to mourn the loss of their relative without having to sully his or her memory.
More analogous to the situation of the homosexual is the case recorded in the Talmud (b. Gittin 38a) of a woman who was a partial slave, forbidden to marry either another slave or a free man. Without a religiously acceptable outlet, the woman became exceedingly promiscuous with the local men, and the rabbis forced her master to free her fully so that she could marry. In discussing this case, R. Meshulam Roth (Qol Mevasser 1:25) observes that the woman’s hopeless situation was emotionally intolerable to her, and that her behavior in this case should be considered one of oness. If anything, the situation of Orthodox homosexual Jews who wish to follow halakha is even more intolerable. If they keep this halakha, they have no hope for a loving intimate partnership, ever.
A Different Kind of Oness
One of the chief arguments put forth against the oness approach, since R. Lamm first suggested it forty years ago, has been that most cases of oness are cases of an action taken under duress at a specific point in time. This would not apply to homosexuals who, like heterosexuals, can certainly control their urges at any given moment, and should be expected to do so. Nevertheless, I believe this is a false comparison.
Urges are controlled by the calming factor of knowing there is an alternative outlet. Unlike heterosexuals, gay Orthodox Jews have no halakhically acceptable outlet for the vital human need for intimate partnership, and never will. This is the key difference between this case of oness and most other cases. One cannot view celibacy as moment by moment abstinence. The oness derives from the cumulative weight of the totality of the moments of a person’s life, an absolutely crushing weight in this case.
Psychologically, gay Orthodox Jews are faced with one of two options: either be sexually active and fragment this transgression from their conscious minds, or be celibate and live with the knowledge that they will never experience a real intimate relationship. I firmly believe that the latter is not really a livable option for most adults, but a debilitating and life-crushing prospect. Advocating for it is an exercise in futility.
In reality, gay Orthodox Jews who are advised or pressured to be celibate either ignore the advice, hide in the “closet,” or leave Orthodoxy altogether. Worse, if the guilt or dissonance is too great, they may turn to drugs, extreme promiscuity or even suicide. This is not at all what we want to accomplish. I believe we must come to terms with the fact that, in the long run, Orthodox homosexual Jews really have no choice but to allow themselves to fulfill the intense desire for emotional and physical intimacy in the only way open to them.
To be sure, calling something oness does not make the action halakhically permitted; it is not. Moreover, adopting the oness principle does not mean that halakha recognizes same sex qiddushin (Jewish marriage) – it does not. Finally, the concept of oness does not cover people with a more fluid sexuality; those who are capable of forming a satisfying intimate bond with members of the opposite sex and choose to do so with a member of their own sex cannot reasonably be called “compelled.”
However, the concept of oness does apply to that percentage of the population for whom homosexual love is the only expression of emotional intimacy and sexuality available. Consequently, it is my firm belief that the Orthodox community should accept the fact that there will be non-celibate homosexuals in our midst and we should welcome them.
Sociology and Policy Considerations
I would further suggest, if only for considerations of social policy and community health, that we encourage exclusivity and the forming of a loving and lasting relationship-bond as the optimal lifestyle for gay Orthodox Jews who feel they are oness and cannot be celibate (and this is the vast majority). This type of relationship is the closest in character to the choice made by married heterosexual couples in our community. Gay Orthodox couples should not be penalized for forming a committed relationship; certainly their children, natural or adopted, must not be. It is the obligation of the synagogue to think creatively and open-mindedly about how to accommodate these families, especially when it comes to celebrating the children’s semahot.
Certainly, if any homosexual Jewish man or woman feels that he or she wishes to follow the halakha and be celibate and looks to the rabbi for encouragement, the rabbi should give this person all the encouragement he or she needs. However, no Orthodox rabbi should feel duty-bound to urge homosexual Jews to be celibate. This is not a practical option for most people, and advocating this will only cause that person intense pain and guilt.
In short, there should be no social penalty in the Orthodox world for being a non-celibate homosexual Jew. Homosexual congress is not a moral violation; it is purely a violation of a religious prohibition, one that is the inevitable consequence of the person’s psychological and even biological makeup. If God overlooks the inevitable, so should we.
January 8, 2012 | 4:04 pm
Posted by Rabbi Hyim Shafner
In this past shabbat’s torah portion Yaakov blesses his children with unusual blessings. We imagine blessings to be good wishes or promises for the future, here though Yaakov seems to bless his children by describing them, their strengths and weaknesses, in some instances, such as Shimon and Levi, only mentioning their weaknesses. What kind of blessing is this?
Perhaps Jacob, whose whole life has revolved around the question of blessings from his brother to his fight with the angel, understands that a true blessing is not a prophecy, or good wishes, or a hope for some future bounty, but rather a deeper look at the self and one’s potential. To help the receiver of the blessing truly create their own blessing.
Human beings have strengths and weaknesses and usually they are two sides of the same characteristic. As the Talmud says “whoever is greater than his neighbor so too is his yetzer (his [evil] inclination) greater than his neighbor.” All aspects of our personality are both a strength and a weakness. A true beracha is not a mystical incantation bestowing good luck; it is a kind of therapeutic interpretation, a highlighting of one’s midot, ones character traits, and shedding light upon how they can be used as a strength instead of a weakness.
This idea can help us understand several Rabbinic ideas regarding berachot.
Why is the beracha of a hedyot, a regular person, not to be taken lightly (Talmud Berachot 7a)? Because a beracha is not prophecy or powerful incantation, rather it is insight into the receiver, a reflection on who they are. Perhaps this is also why we do not bless ourselves, since one can not usually see themselves and their own strengths and weakness clearly.
The Talmud says when we judge a person wrongly; we must make up for this by blessing them. The logical undoing of judging someone wrongly (seeing their characteristics as weakness rather than strength, bad rather than good) is to bless them, to judge their personality licaf zecut, meritoriously, and find in them their strengths.
What about blessing God, which we do so often? It is in this vain quite appropriate to bless God. In blessing Hashem we are finding Hashem where Hashem seemingly is not. Looking deeper into life and the world and finding the tov, the good, the force of the Divine in the physical. This finding of God’s goodness, as it were, is to bless God. Berachot on food, on mitzvoth or natural wonders are all to find God where he is hidden, in this world.
This approach to blessings can help us to understand the following particularly strange piece of Talmud.
“It was taught: Rabbi Ishmael bbn Elisha says: I once entered into the innermost part [of the Sanctuary] to offer incense and saw Akathriel Jah, the Lord of Hosts, seated upon a high and exalted throne. He said to me: Ishmael, My son, bless Me! l replied: May it be Thy will that Thy mercy may suppress Thy anger and Thy mercy may prevail over Thy other attributes, so that Thou mayest deal with Thy children according to the attribute of mercy and mayest, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice! And He nodded to me with His head.” -Berachot 7a
God is blessed to use God’s midot, God’s characteristics, to benefit people. This is the essence of a beracha, to help another to see the strengths of their midot and use them for good and not bad, even God in this case.
In our Torah portion, Vayichi, Yaakov, after a lifetime of wrangling for berachot, finds that he is the master of berachot. He is a good parent in that he stays connected to all of his children no matter what they do and sees their different sides, their strengths and weaknesses, clearly. He then points them out, like a good therapist, in the hopes that they will learn from the blessing and indeed be “blessed.”
January 4, 2012 | 1:45 pm
Posted by Rav Yosef Kanefsky
It is obviously too early to know for sure, but it is plausible that we are witnessing the slow-motion unraveling of Haredi Judaism. Between periodic money-laundering and sexual abuse scandals in US Haredi communities, and the militant intolerance of others on display today in Israel - with no meaningful internal calls for soul-searching - the signs of a religious community in deep spiritual distress abound. This seeming unraveling represents a profound tragedy for the Jewish world and for Torah, and it places a critical burden on the shoulders of the modern Orthodox community.
It is a tragedy because the Haredi community has for many decades been an inspiration for Jews from all walks of Jewish life. We have all heard and been moved by the stories of extraordinary chesed (kindness) and self-sacrifice, piety and God-fearing-ness that are commonplace in the Haredi community. There can be no question that the profound appreciation Torah study that has sprouted day schools, yeshivot and Kollels all over the Jewish landscape is in large measure the result of Haredi dedication to this sacred activity. And yes, the importance of personal and sexual modesty has been upheld and taught to us by the Haredi community. Despite their philosophical or practical differences with Haredim, Jews of all kinds have been motivated, inspired and moved by the Haredi commitment to core Jewish religious values.
These days are likely dwindling however, as the Haredi community is, and projects the image of being, something much less wholesome. At this juncture, how many non-Haredi Jewish teenagers, to choose the relevant demographic, are associating Haredi Judaism with piety and fear of God? What associations, tragically, are the ones that the term “Haredi” is now most likely to elicit? The spiritual unraveling of the Haredi community will create a vacuum of inspiration and religious role-modeling of enormous and frightening proportion.
Whether we are prepared for it or not, the modern Orthodox community (in all its many shades and forms), bears the obligation to step up and fill this void. We can no longer be content to carve out our own religious lives, and bear responsibility only for our own families and communities. We need to pick up the fallen torch, and be the models of piety, Torah study, and self-sacrifice that Jews everywhere need to see, admire, and be inspired by. This shouldn’t be a stretch for us. As Orthodox Jews, we are already committed to all of these values. And we have the additional strengths of also being committed to the ways of peace and mutual-respect, to positive engagement with the world around us, and to seeing the good in modern society. Now more than ever, we need to be true to our Modern orthodox values, as the mantle of broader Jewish inspiration is falling to us.
January 2, 2012 | 3:44 pm
Posted by Rabbi Barry Gelman
There have been numerous takes on the recent events in Beit Shemesh. Most of them have focused on politics and sociology. I would like to offer a brief analysis based on spiritual values and, humbly submit what we can learn from our reaction to these events.
The chareidi men who have been harassing the little girls and the mothers claim to be acting L’Shem Shamayim, for the sake of Heaven, and in the name of God.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who was no stranger to controversy or, for that matter, people saying horrible things about him and doing despicable things to him wrote the following about the limits of what we do for the sake of heaven.
כבוד-שמים המושג השגה בהירה מרומם הוא את ערך האדם וערך כל היצורים כבוד שמים מגושם הוא נוטה לע”ז, ומשפיל את כבוד האדם וכבוד כל הבריות
“When the duty of honor God is conceived of in an enlightened manner, it raise human worth and thew worth of all creatures…But a crude conception of God tends toward the idolatrous and degrades the dignity of humanity… “
Rav Kook is reminding us that honor of God that is based on the greatness of human beings, created in the image of God uplifts people. On the other hand, honor of God understood in a shallow fashion, as if God needs our honor, leads to anger toward those who do not honor God, and is idolatrous as, by definition, a wrong conception of God is being honored. This incorrect undersntanding of God leads to people being degraded and mistreated, all in the name of God. Rav Kook goes on with something even more amazing:
ע”כ גדול הוא כבוך הבריות שדוחה את לא-תעשה שבתורה , להורות על כבוד שמים הבהיר, המגדל בטובו את יסוד כבוד הבריו
It is for this reason the sages declared that the dignity of persons is so important that is supersedes a negative precept of the Torah…”
Here Rav Kook reminds us that performance of MItzvot can actually get in the way of Kavod Shamayim. Thus, in some cases, even God’s honor, in terms of some commandments, is set aside in order to protect the honor of a human being. What we have here is a real definition of what it means to honor God. In Rav Kook’s mind, it is simple. If something brings honor to another human being, it can be considered honor of God as well. On the other hand, if something brings disparagement or harassment to another human being, then by definition, it cannot be an honor to God. Rav Kook’s teaches that in all of our endeavours, even in our striving to to Mitzvot, that how we do what we do goes to the very legitimacy of our act. Perhaps not always, but in many many cases, the litmus test of deciding if what I am doing is a mitzvah or not is easy: Does it being honor to others?
It is clear that the Chareidi protestors in Beit Shemesh have lost all sense of what it really means to act L’Shem Shamayim. Spitting on little girl and calling women prostitutes does not fit Rav Kooks definition.
While what is going on in Beit Shemesh is horrible, it does offer us the opportunity for some introspection. What is so troubling is that these people are using any means neccesary to achieve their goals, even if means harming and disparaging others. The upset this is causing us should remind us to be careful in terms of what means we use to achieve our goals. Even in our religious strivings, we must be mindful of how our actions affect others. Is there a way to achieve our goal without hurting others? If not, is it really a worthwhile goal? Have we exhausted all of our halachik creativity to reach our goal while at the same time, protecting the dignity of others.
It is easy to engage in Chareidi bashing, but it will much more productive if we use our understandable indignation as a catalyst to self improvement.
January 1, 2012 | 11:35 am
Posted by Rabbi Hyim Shafner
Rape is not about sex, it’s about violence. So too Orthodox Jewish men attacking little Orthodox Jewish girls in Beit Shemesh because they were wearing short sleeves this past week was not, God forbid about tzniut, the Jewish notion of modesty (the perpetrated acts were of course anything but modest), but about power.
In Israel religion is inextricably interwoven with politics and politics is about power. It would be nice if this were a symbiotic relationship, resulting in a Jewish democratic state in which politics could be informed by the spiritual and the religious, but unfortunately it has resulted in a parasitic relationship in which religion is all too often colored by, and utilized in, the service of power.
I am not grouping all Orthodox Jews together and I am not stereotyping all Charedi (anti-Zionist, strongly insular) Jews together. I well realize that though there are hundreds of Charedim who have been involved in violence over the past few years, in protest to co-gender public busses, in response to state involvement in the welfare of children in parts of Jerusalem, or in this recent episode in Beit Shemesh, it is hundreds of Charedim, not thousands or tens of thousands. Why do they do it? Several reasons I think.
Though some have political power due to Israel’s parliamentary system, the majority feel powerless. Just as haughtiness is perpetrated by individuals to counteract strong feelings of insecurity, violence does the same for feelings of powerlessness. Indeed, religion is a perfect guise for such violence since it paints violence as indignant and vindicated, righteous and productive.
Why do some Charedim in Israel feel powerless? Among several causes that loom large are that they do not serve in the army, something that in the state of Israel is considered the badge of honor, and an important factor in securing latter employment in the civil sector. Recently, due to a rabbinical edict, they are not permitted to study secular subjects even if it will assist them in finding a job, rendering the job search incredibly difficult.
Many live below the poverty line, subsisting on government handouts in order to study for many years and thus avoid army service, considered spiritually dangerous by Charedi Orthodox communities. Without serving in the army in Israel and without secular academic education, theirs is a poor sub-culture seen as backward by Israel’s general society, and even by Zionist Orthodox co-religionists.
The second reason for the violence is that Orthodox Jews who live in insular communities in Israel often have no real sense of others. If one lives in an enclosed enough community and is taught that only one’s own way of seeing every detail in life, religion, and the world is right, soon there is no vision, soon such preaching becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. To not know or value those who are different from oneself breeds fear of the other and disregard, or worse, toward them.
I am told that in many communities Charedi women are forbidden from wearing ankle length skirts and are only allowed calf length skirts. Why? Because the Zionist orthodox women often wear ankle length skirts. This is to me a fear and loathing of the other that is so strong it has led to the absurdly xenophobic.
The third reason I would suggest for the violence is that those perpetrating it have mistakenly done what many fringe groups and sects in Jewish history have done, harped on one Jewish idea or element to the (partial) exclusion of the colorful range of important ideas and commandments in Judaism. Whether Reform Judaism which stressed the commandments between people, minimizing the ritual commandments, or some Charedim who stress the ritual commandments to the detriment of those between humans outside of their close knit communities.
Judaism deeply values seeing different Jewish points of view even when they differ from our own. This is the great lesson we learn from Hillel and Shamai, who disagreed about most of Jewish law and yet married their children off to each other. Let us speak out against the violence and against the teachers of the who perpetrate it and do not take their followers to task, and let us bring back the true Jewish perspective of Hillel and Shamai, that, “Both these and those are the word of God” and erase the false outlook that seems to dominate in our day of, “Its my way or the highway.”
December 29, 2011 | 10:21 am
Posted by Rabbi Asher Lopatin
The Real Demographic Threat in Israel: Ultra-Orthodox taking over the Knesset
Anyone who reads this blog is almost certainly horrified by the violence, hatred and downright nastiness of the Ultra-Orthodox terrorists who are so cowardly that they are trying to intimidate the Dati Le’umi, Religious Zionist community by attacking their children going to school. But we need to recognize that because of the current system of government in Israel, nothing can happen while the Chareirdi, Ultra Orthodox have so much power in the Knesset because of their organizational skills and sheer numbers. Moreover, with their huge birthrate – thank God for more Jews! – they are going to have more influence in the years to come, not less.
So it is time to reconsider something that some of my Right wing friends are suggesting: Israel should annex – unilaterally if need be – the West Bank, Yehuda and Shomron, and give the 1.7 million Arabs living there the vote. That will throw off the demographic strenglehold of the Chareidi parties by shaking up the make-up of the Knesset. No doubt many of those Arabs will vote for the Leftist, more secular parties. In addition, to deal with the imbalance of Arab votes, Israel should open the gates to more Jew-ish people from Africa and South America and combine them with the Jew-ish people from the former FSU to build a fire-wall against the Chareidi Ultra-Orthodox parties. The Ultra-Orthodox will not embrace these Jews or quasi Jews from Nigeria and Unganda – in fact, the Conservative world has done more to reach out to them than anyone else. So we will have the perfect balance in Israel to recalibrate and minimize the power of the Ultra Orthodox world and restore Israel to the “status quo” that existed in the early decades of the State, when Shlomo Goren and much more tolerant and Zionist religious Jews dominated the Jewish scene. This is not a joke: Israel, in my mind, is suffering from forms of xenophobia that are keeping the United States back as well, when we compare it to the growth and success of Australia and Canada which have successfully allow immigrant populations to provide diversity and balance.
I welcome the conversation…
Rabbi Asher Lopatin