Sunday, December 20, 2015

Who said that Mike Huckabee is not a viable candidate?

If you listen to the media, pundits, and frankly, most people, Governor Mike Huckabee has “no chance” of becoming the next President of the United States. 

If, however, the reaction that he evinced at last night’s gala Bet El Dinner is any indication, I would caution anyone from writing his political epitaph.  Looking around the room, one could not help but be struck by the prevalent longing that this, wise, good and decent man would assume exactly that role.   His combination of passion, humor, strength, confidence, and humility, coupled with an extraordinary love of the United States, Israel, and their peoples, was simply breathtaking. 

Frankly, I do not know why it seems “self-evident” that Mr. Huckabee is not a viable candidate.  Watching his performance at the various debates (at those rare moments that he was given a chance to speak), listening to him speak on the issues, and having had the chance to converse with him in person, I have been flummoxed that the opinion makers have concluded that this articulate, and deeply perceptive man is no longer in the running, despite his excellent performance at all of the above.  One thing, however, is certain.  Governor Huckabee was the perfect choice as the headline speaker at this wonderful event, an annual celebration of those who are unreservedly passionate about the State of Israel, committed to its safety and security, deeply devoted to positively inculcating Torah values in society, and unabashedly proud of exercising not only our right, but our obligation to live in all of the blessed land that the Almighty has given us in our time.
Beginning by noting that it was the first night of Chanukah – a night in which the Jewish people remind themselves of their task to bring greater light into the world – Mr. Huckabee noted that far from being a campaign stop, it was his great honor to speak on behalf of Israel, a country that he has developed a deep and abiding love for.  He hearkened back to his first trip at age 17, when he immediately sensed that coming to Israel felt like he was coming home, though he had never been there before.   Upon reflection, he realized that in part this is because the relationship between the United States and Israel is “not merely organizational, based on mutual interests.  It is an organic relationship, because both countries were founded by people who had the vision to give their children the gift of liberty and freedom, including religious freedom, so that their voices would not be trampled out by forces of tyranny”.  

Furthermore, neither the amazing and blessed history of the United States, nor the unbelievable history – not only of Ancient Israel and the Jewish people – but of the modern State of Israel can be understood without seeing the providence of the Hand of G-d, directing otherwise impossible events.  It is impossible not to see that the ancient promise of G-d to Abraham that “I will bless those who bless you, and those who curse you shall be accursed”, has been coming true, and will continue to be true, since unlike us, G-d always keeps His promises. 

I was particularly mesmerized as Mr. Huckabee described the progress of Israel since 1972, the year that both he and I came to Israel for the first time.  It has been a time that we have literally seen the “Dry Bones” come back to life in Israel’s multidimensional and vital multicultural society. We have witnessed how, from places that we both remember as nothing but rocky wasteland, the desert has bloomed and developed into beautiful homes, cities and farms.   How the Hi-Tech industry of Israel has risen to be the second most dominant worldwide, (a fact elaborated on later in the evening by the Modi Rosen, one of Israel’s most successful venture capitalists.)  A wonderful country has sprouted that seeks to live by a higher moral and ethical standard, doing its best to protect its citizens in a very tough neighborhood, despite the criticism of the world.

Speaking of world criticism, Mr. Huckabee had harsh words for the current American Administration, saying that it was not the president's job to prioritize protecting "the reputation of Islam."

"I believe that the next president should never believe somehow that it is the job of the United States president as commander-in-chief to protect the reputation of Islam more than it is to protect the people of the United States of America from radical Islam," he said to thunderous applause. 

 He outlined some of the tragic errors of the current administration, from the terrible nuclear deal with Iran, to the way that Mr. Netanyahu has been treated, and the moral equivalence too often drawn between what are the vicious attacks by Israel’s armies and the heroic and proper efforts of Israel to defend its citizens.   Israel, after all, has to be clear headed about the threats it faces.  “If you have a malignant tumor in your body, and you do nothing to eradicate that tumor, it begins to metastasize, grow, and eventually kill you”, Mr. Huckabee noted.  “ISIS is just like that tumor.  If you allow it to grow unchecked, if you don't kill it and destroy it, not just contain it, it will eventually kill you”.  
Describing the pain he witnessed first had while visiting with the family of Naftali Frankel, HY”D, a day before the teen’s body was found murdered by Arab thugs, he spoke of our duty to protect the innocent and to stand up clearly and forcefully against evil.
Finally, Mr. Huckabee described the pain and shock that he felt when seeing the cover of the Daily News last week, in which the local rag criticized those who prayed for the victims of the San Bernardino massacre, blaring “God Isn’t Fixing This” on its front page headline.  “How dare they mock the power of prayer?” Gov. Huckabee asked. “They obviously know nothing of the miraculous Hand of G-d, who listens to prayer and does wonder in our world.  One need look no farther than to Bet El, where, most improbably, an amazing and beautiful community is thriving and providing such light to the world, a very short distance from the center of hatred that is Ramallah.   
One need see only the story of Jean and Eugene Gluck.  Each of them the sole survivors of their respective families, each of them suffering the worst horrors of the concentration camps, they have come to this country and built an amazing family including many children and grandchildren standing up for the best values of Judaism and of humanity.  (He asked that the lights be momentarily turned on so that the large Gluck family could stand up and be noted, to much applause.) They have become towers of strength and support to so many wonderful caused in the United States and Israel, most notably in their monumental work in helping to build Bet El into the vibrant center of Jewish life and Education that is for Judea, Samaria, and the entire country. 
“Jean & Eugene Gluck, whose prayers to G-d from the unimaginable depths, have been answered in such spectacular fashion, show what G-d is capable of as He answers our prayers.  The problems facing our country come not because we pray too much, instead of acting on the liberal agenda of the Daily News.  The problems inhere when we do not pay enough attention to what G-d has asked of us, and do not sufficiently recognize His presence in our lives”.
 I do not know if the United States will have the privilege of having Mr. Huckabee as our President.   (In speaking at the Dinner to Dr. Joseph Frager, well known political activist, he reminded me that the majority of Republican voters have not yet declared their absolute preference for any candidate, and anything is still possible.)   I do know, however, that if more Americans, and certainly more Jews, had the deep faith and sense of G-d’s presence that Gov. Huckabee has, the world would be a far better place.   
I feel very blessed to have had the privilege of being in the presence of greatness, as Gov. Huckabee and the very worthy honorees joined Eugene Gluck in celebration of Bet El, andindeed all of the Yishuvim in Yehuda and Shomron, and in appreciation of G-d’s gift that is the State of Israel.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Homosexuality and the Torah Community

   This is a difficult topic.

   I have started to write this essay several times, in several different ways, over the past few weeks, and abandoned it after being unhappy in the direction it was going.  There are many complex issues that come into play, and it has been difficult for me to articulate a nuanced, "middle of the road" approach that does justice to the subject matter, proudly upholds Torah principles, and at the same time avoids writing that which will hurt the easily offended.

   I am referring to the tension between Torah observance and those who harbor same-sex attraction.   This issue has been in and out of the front pages over recent months, mostly to the detriment of Torah Jewry.  The Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v.Hodges establishing same sex marriage as a constitutional right, (I discussed the negative Constitutional and aspects of that decision in another essay) resultant  proclamations about Homosexuality, and the terrible attack and consequent Chilul Hashem in Jerusalem at the "Gay Pride" parade have all made life difficult for serious and sensitive Torah Jews who feel under attack when standing up for Torah values, in a world that celebrates “Gay rights” and cynically exploits the actions of a venal insane person in Jerusalem to tar all Orthodox Jews as being insensitive, ruthless, homophobic bigots.

   I have read and seen (and written) various lectures and statements decrying the Supreme Court decision, and articles disassociating ourselves from the acts of that lunatic.   I have also, unfortunately, seen statements by various Rabbis that have gone way too far in supporting the LGBT agenda and beating our breast for our sins in this matter.  One prominent Israeli Rabbi  gave a widely publicized lecture at a memorial for the victim, stating “Our [The Orthodox community as a whole] hands have spilled this blood”.  The Executive Director of the Rabbinical Council of America was photographed speaking from the rainbow draped amud of the “Gay Synagogue” in New York, saying that we stand in solidarity with them, which was a source of great embarrassment for many RCA members. 

      What I have not heard is a positive approach that deals with the underlying issues and how we, as serious Torah Jews, might think about them.  And I understand why I have not seen it – for the same reason that I will have a hard time getting this article published.   Frum people do not want to discuss it.   Many are revolted by the topic, fear having to discuss it with their children, or feel that the mere raising of the topic somehow violates the proper bounds of Kedusha and propriety.  

       To which I say, in an ideal world, perhaps they are right.  But we do not live in an ideal world.   We live in a world in which this topic is in discussion in the media, government, business, and everywhere one looks, every day.   We can either choose the ostrich approach of burying our heads in the sand, or we can try to come up with a way of thinking about these issues that is honorable and dignified, and articulates how the Torah cares about individuals and the struggles they go through, while at the same time setting up standards for morals and values and human conduct that are timeless and eternal.   I want to do my best to make an attempt to help begin this conversation.  If we do not,  we will continue to be increasingly trashed by society around us, and be written off by those within us who need our love and understanding.    It is my fervent hope as I write these lines that something akin to the attitudes expressed below would be accepted by all Torah Jews as a way in which we approach these issues, talk about them in any public forum, and educate our children.

      In order to begin talking about this, several points need to be made.  There is no getting around discussing sexuality in general when approaching this subject, and we must be open and frank.

   1. Sexual Attraction, or the stimuli, feelings, images, or fantasies, or whatever it is that cause one person to feel sexual attraction to another, whether Heterosexual or Homosexual, is not a rational subject.  It cannot be said that "it is rational" or that "it makes sense" for a person to desire and even crave  sexual pleasures, no matter how “normal” we assume it to be.   In fact, if one were foolish enough to try to describe the heterosexual act to a small child, their reaction would probably be "yuck!", and amazement that a rational person would contemplate doing something so "weird".   Nothing having to do with sexuality has any claim on the intellect.

      But yet, as we all know, the Almighty in His infinite wisdom has created us with a deep desire for such activity -- indeed it is one of the most powerful drives that always has, and always will, motivate human behavior across all of society.  Why do we have this desire?  Certainly for procreation...but there must be much more to it, or He could have made it far less powerful.   Perhaps to remind us of our lowly spiritual status.  Perhaps to provide a special bond between husbands and wives.  I, of course, do not pretend that we mere mortals can possibly know.   The bottom line, however, is that all normal humans have deep-seated sexual desires that cannot be explained rationally, and yet are nevertheless irrefutably powerful.

   2. There are a relatively small but significant number of people in our society who are sexually attracted to the same gender, and not to the opposite gender.   Any history of the world, whether in the Tanach or otherwise, will show that there have always been such people.   There have also always been long-standing debates as to whether the cause of this was nature or nurture, i.e. whether it is an inborn desire or the result of factors relating to the person's upbringing and life experiences.  For practical purposes, for most self-identifying homosexuals today, that is a moot question, as it is virtually never a conscious choice made by the individual to be a homosexual.  The important fact is that they have a sexual attraction to the same gender, and not to the opposite gender.  As before, this is not any more or less “rational” than attraction to the opposite gender.  It is just a fact of life, that some people have that disposition.

   3. This realization was brought home to me by a long, difficult, and painful conversation that I had many years ago with a friend of mine whom I had been quite close to in Yeshiva.   He confided to me that although he was generally a happy person, and one who always tried to look at the bright side of matters, he was deeply conflicted and sad. He had been dating for some time, trying to find his bashert, but severely hampered by the growing realization that he was not attracted to any of the women that he was meeting, nor any other women. Instead, although he had been fighting the thoughts for a long time, he acknowledged that he was very attracted to men.  He was not happy with this realization – indeed it pained him greatly as he was fully aware of the Torah's prohibition against Homosexual activity and the importance of the mitzvah to marry and have children – but it was very real for him nonetheless.  He knew that surrendering to this urge meant that he would never be able to feel whole as an Eved Hashem, nor would he be fully accepted in the Torah world that he loved.  And yet, forcing himself to continue on the path to marrying a woman would quite probably lead to lifelong sexual frustration, an unhappy marriage, and many forms of existential misery.   I cried for him then, and tears come to my eyes when I think of him now.  Unfortunately we lost touch – I do not know which path in life he chose ultimately – but I suspect it was not the one that stayed within the normative Yeshiva world.  My point in telling this story here: for most homosexuals, their predilection is not a matter of choice.  It is hard to imagine anyone growing up within the Orthodox world who would choose to have this tendency, as it means that they are then faced with a terribly painful burden, which they probably wish that they did not have.  They are certainly not to be blamed, let alone ridiculed, mocked or in any way looked down upon simply for having this predilection.

   4. As mentioned, the Torah in Vayikra 22:18 (and elsewhere) expressly forbids a man to lie with another man as with a woman, calling it a תועבה , commonly translated an abomination.  It is clear that the Torah does not cast homosexual feelings or desire alone as an abomination, but prohibits  acting upon those feelings.  Obviously, it would be far preferable if a person did not have a desire for an action that was forbidden by the Torah.  But what the Torah absolutely forbids are actions, not un-acted upon desires.

      This is not nearly as strange as it sounds.   This state of affairs – having a desire that may not be acted upon – is one that is familiar to virtually everyone.   All of us have a Yetzer Hara, or negative inclination, that causes us to desire actions that are forbidden.  Whether it is in matters relating to money, or forbidden foods, or speaking Lashon Hara, or forbidden sexual relationships, we all have desires, at least occasionally, for that which the Torah (or other legal or moral codes) forbid.   We are used to the idea that despite the fact that I may be very physically desirous of engaging in a particular activity, I am forbidden to act upon it.

      One might ask, however, is not the fact that the Torah forbids a particular activity ipso facto proof that desire for that activity is in itself sinful and despicable?  Rambam (*) in his introduction to Pirkei Avot (Shmoneh Perakim) differentiates between two types of sins.   There are (a) sins that we inherently know are wrong and immoral such as murder, thievery, and hurting other people.   A person who desires these is sinful, and as long he/she desires to engage in such activity they are a sinner and in great need of introspection to rid oneself of such desires.  However regarding sins that are (b) not inherently immoral, but are only forbidden because our Father in Heaven has forbade us to engage in them (what we would call a חוק ) it is not forbidden to harbor secret desires for such sins.  He quotes the Sifri which says “A person should not say 'I cannot (it is revolting to me) to eat a mixture of milk and meat, or to wear shatnez, or to engage in forbidden sexual relations ', but rather 'I certainly can [engage in the prohibited], but what can I do – my Father in Heaven has forbidden me to do so'”.  (A discussion of how this relates to the mitzvah of Lo Sachmod, Do not Covet, although an important part of this discussion, is beyond the scope of this essay).

    Thus, having a desire – that one may not act upon – is hardly unique to homosexuality. 
It may be different in degree, and far more difficult to deal with, than the various “Yetzer Hara” urges that heterosexual people have to deal with, in that such a person may in fact have to live a life of celibacy and suppressed desires with no “kosher” sexual outlet, but it is not different in kind.   Everyone in this world is given some burdens by the Almighty in the form of a Yetzer Hara that they are challenged to fight and not submit to.  A person who consistently triumphs over the Yetzer Hara is a tzaddik;  one who struggles with it, and is not always able to act perfectly, has a great deal of company, to one extent or another, with the rest of us.  Only the Almighty Himself, who assigned different challenges and burdens to each of us, can judge and weigh the difficulty of the burden vs. the effort made to withstand temptation and overcome it, whatever that temptation may be.

   5. The questions that then arise are (a) what is a serious Torah Jew who harbors such feelings to do in life?, (b) How are we as Torah Jews supposed to treat such brothers and sisters?, and (c) What is a proper Torah attitude regarding the LGBT agenda and “Gay Rights Movement” and the Same Sex Marriage decision, etc.  What public stance is appropriate for us who proudly and unapologetically stand for Torah values, while not being seen as insensitive to the plight of homosexual individuals who suffer prejudice, ridicule, mockery and abuse through no fault of their own, and feel deprived of the right to equality in employment, marriage, and general civil life?  These are not easy questions, and each of them alone can take up an entire essay.  I will comment briefly on the first two:

A.     This needs much sensitivity and thought.  Some in the Torah community have advocated reparative therapy, an approach championed by an organization JONAH, with the goal of “fixing the problem” and changing the individual into a person with heterosexual desires. They claim to have the approbation of some Gedolim, although that letter was written a long time ago.   Many Rabbis, including the RCA,  have taken public positions opposing them , and in June a New Jersey Court convicted them of fraud in a very disturbing decision.  In my view, a helpful approach was taken in a public letter by Rav Aharon Feldman שליט"א Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Yisroel to a Baal Teshuvah, in which he sensitively articulated how a Homosexual person can have a special role to play in the Torah community.  In short, it requires great empathy on the part of Rabbinic and community guides to help that person be all they can be in a Torah Kehilla.

A very important resource is the book “Judaism and Homosexuality: An Authentic  Orthodox View”, by Rabbi Chaim Rapoport (**) which greatly expands on many of the themes in this article, and should be required reading for anyone serious about the subject.

B.      As far as how we in the Torah community are to treat our brothers and sisters who are “different”, based on what I have written above, I think the answer is simple:  ואהבת לרעיך כמוך, “Love Thy Fellow as Thyself”, the overarching Torah principle.  (I wrote an interesting take on that mitzvah here .) 

As individuals, they should be accepted, respected, and given the same kavod as anyone else – as long as their sexual orientation is, as it should be – a private matter.   Just like we relate to everyone else in the community as our brother and sister, with equal dignity and equal respect, and without inquiry into their private and intimate lives, so to ought it be for them.  As a Rabbi in several positions, I have known, or strongly suspected, that some who attended services were Homosexuals.   They were treated the same as everyone else, and unless they chose to speak to me privately about the matter, the issue was never raised.   I welcomed them into the shul and my home with love and admiration, knowing that they have a difficult lot in life in which, despite the circus that exists in the outside world, they have chosen to treat as it ought to be – a private matter between them and Hashem.  I deeply believe that this is the only legitimate Torah approach.

A great deal of work must be done in our communities to improve in this area, as there is no question that there are many people who feel it not only acceptable, but even obligatory, to speak disparagingly of homosexual individuals, as if this is what the Torah requires of us.  There is no question that this attitude has been the cause of much unwarranted pain and angst, and sometimes cruelty against our fellow Jews.  It is partially from this attitude that a monster such as Yishai Schlissel was bred, and this clearly must stop. It is imperative that our schools and shuls take a leading role in educating our young people that the mere fact that someone has a tendency towards homosexuality must not, G-d forbid, be a cause for hatred, but rather we must have love and empathy for those who have been given this difficult burden to bear.

C.      As for a proper response of the Torah community to the efforts of the LGBT activists, this is where it gets difficult.  Due to a variety of factors, the “Gay Rights” movement has become the “Civil Rights” movement of our generation.  As is well known, activists have been all too successful in promoting an agenda that seeks to have homosexuality (and other “queer [their word] orientations”) recognized as morally, legally, and humanly completely equivalent with the traditional Biblical heterosexual view, i.e. that the Ribbono Shel Olam created us such that a Man should cleave to a Woman and be as one, and not to another Man.

      Supporters of this movement have made incredible strides over the past generation, whereby societal attitudes have shifted from an overwhelmingly negative attitude towards homosexuality and abhorrence at the notion of Same Sex Marriage to where we are today. These days, if you are not an advocate for Gay Rights, supportive of Gay Marriage, and aghast at any attempt to exclude homosexuals from being school teachers, serving in the military, members of the clergy, or any other public position, you are derided as a homophobic bigot who is worthy of contempt.  

      Over twenty years ago when I was working as an engineer at AT&T Bell Labs, our group was called in one day and read a corporate policy that stated that AT&T considers people of all sexual orientations as completely equal in every way, and if any employee does not agree to this, they are homophobic, and should go see a therapist for counseling to assist in ridding themselves of this phobia, as it may affect their continued employment at AT&T. (!)      

     I trust that this is not unique to AT&T. It is becoming the norm in the society we live in, certainly in liberal New York City.  And if you think Eretz Yisroel is any better, think again.  I was recently astounded to read that Tel Aviv (not San Francisco) had been voted in 2011 as "World's Best Gay City” , whatever that means.   It is pervasive and increasingly considered the correct and moral position; indeed  in the eyes of the intelligentsia to be anything but fully supportive of the LGBT agenda is to be a nasty, unforgiving, unenlightened bigot who stands for repressing and harming vulnerable people etc. etc.

Obviously, for us, the fact that the Torah forbids this activity and calls it a תועבה is reason enough to understand that it is very negative.  Nevertheless, given this milieu, what can we say that will convince the unconvinced of the superiority of the Torah's moral code?

      It seems to me that there are several arguments that can be appreciated by fair minded people, as to why celebrating a culture of “Gay Pride” and forced acceptance of morality equivalence for homosexuality is a very negative phenomenon that should be opposed.

  • First and foremost is the sanctity of marriage and family.   Although proponents of Same sex marriage would have us believe otherwiseit is the conviction of the Torah, and  most experts  that children do best with having a male father and female mother in the home in which they grow up.    It is of course true that not all heterosexuals are good parents; some are quite awful.  It is also true that homosexual couples can be very devoted and sensitive parents.  Nevertheless, traditional marriage is best for children, and best for society, as marriage is the foundation stone of the most basic society unit, the family.
  • Furthermore, it has been shown countless times that Homosexuality leads to a tremendous increase in promiscuity , whereby it is the norm to have a great many partners and where sexuality becomes a very central part of life, rather than a very special sidelight to the many important areas of human endeavor.   This argument, of course, has less currency in the highly sexualized world in which we live, where sexual imagery and provocative dress are all too prevalent, and it is so difficult to try to live with any sort of kedushas Haeynayim in one's life.  Nonetheless, study after study show that in the homosexual world promiscuity reaches levels that are almost unheard of in the heterosexual community. Surely this is a state of affairs that a good moral society should seek to avoid.

Let us not lose sight of the fact that a "Gay Pride" parade in Jerusalem is an outrage to the sanctity of the Holy City and a hurtful, intentional provocation to the deeply religious, both Jewish and Arab, who are incensed by it
  • Additionally, the “Gay Pride” parades are harmful to those who do not share these values.  I do not for a moment condone what happened in Jerusalem.  But it must be understood that the reason that there is a “Gay Pride” march specifically in the Holy City of Jerusalem, although many (most?) of the marchers do not live there, is to assert that Jerusalemites, most of whom, whether religious Jews or Arabs, are very upset that this march takes place in the עיר הקודש (Holy City) , must bow before the LGBT agenda.  Again, not to condone what happened, but a smart person does not poke an angry dog and not expect to get a reaction.  (Although they will never admit it, I am convinced that they were not altogether displeased that a religious fanatic helped them achieve far more publicity and sympathy for their cause than they would have otherwise received.)  For Jerusalemites who wonder what, exactly, these people are “proud” of, and who note that the original rainbow which LGBT have taken as a symbol came about in the aftermath of the Flood, which was a result in great part of enormous sexual depravity, it is an outrage that this parade is foisted upon them, and a violation of their rights to not have their עיר הקודש sullied by what, in the value system of the Torah, is an abomination.
  • Finally – and most importantly – it is a problem for impressionable young people.   And that is, in my view, because of a rarely talked about reason.   I do not believe that sexual orientation is a binary matter; you are either heterosexual or homosexual, you are either attracted to the opposite gender or the same. 
    Apparently, most people are firmly heterosexual, and a minority are firmly homosexual.  However there is a gray area in between, of people who could go one way or the other, given their experiences and choices. 

    To illustrate, it is a well known fact that there are people in every prison, and virtually every single gender dormitory (Including unfortunately all too many Yeshivos) where people who otherwise would clearly be heterosexual, either experiment or act out in a homosexual manner in that environment.   I know this from another close friend, who reported to me that as a teenage bochur in a major Yeshiva, he was "horsing around" and wrestling with another boy when, to his horror, he found that he was aroused.   He never saw himself as having homosexual tendencies, and was abhorred at the thought of it.  But the fact was that he had this unnerving experience.

    My point is that as young people explore their sexuality it is vitally important that they not be getting the message from society that heterosexual and homosexual lifestyles and choices are equally moral and valid choices.  If they do, there will be many young people – from that middle group who are not “hard-wired” one way or the other, who would never have otherwise made the choice to be homosexuals -- who may now explore it, much to their detriment, surely from a religious perspective.

    This, to me, is the greatest danger of the Supreme Court decision.    By granting full equality and status to Same Sex marriage; by removing all taboos and granting full societal approval of the LGBT lifestyle, it will have the very negative effect of influencing impressionable young people to pursue a homosexual lifestyle who otherwise would have never considered it seriously.

      To anyone still reading this manifesto, I appreciate your staying with me.  Maybe you have additional thoughts on the subject – I am most interested to hear about them in the comments.

      The values of the Torah are under attack.  Standing up for the Torah unapologetically in a way that upholds the dictum that “Her Ways are Ways of Pleasantness” is our life’s challenge, especially when it is not simple or easy.  Let us show that we are up to the challenge of Loving our fellow, and making the Name of Hashem Beloved to All.

P.S.   It struck me, during the Torah reading this past Shabbos, that the Torah refers to people who engage in unethical business practices as a "Toeyvah".  

 אֶבֶן שְׁלֵמָה וָצֶדֶק יִהְיֶה לָּךְ אֵיפָה שְׁלֵמָה וָצֶדֶק יִהְיֶה לָּךְ לְמַעַן יַאֲרִיכוּ         יָמֶיךָ עַל הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר ה' אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ:  כִּי תוֹעֲבַת ה' אֱלֹהֶיךָ כָּל עֹשֵׂה אֵלֶּה כֹּל עֹשֵׂה רע 

A perfect and just weight shall you have; a perfect and just measure shall you have; so that your days may be long upon the land which HASHEM your God gives to thee.  For all that do such things, even all that do unrighteously, are an abomination unto HASHEM your God.
Devarim 24:15-16

I wonder whether some of those who insist that we must be totally repulsed by homosexuals are as repulsed by people who cheat in their business... 

and while I am at it, it also says the wisest of men says:

תּוֹעֲבַת ה' כָּל גְּבַהּ לֵב יָד לְיָד לֹא יִנָּקֶה 

Everyone who is arrogant in heart is an abomination to HASHEM; 
be assured, he will not go unpunished
Proverbs 16:5

just asking . . . 


* אמרו הפילוסופים שהמושל בנפשו אע״פ שעושה המעשים הטובים והחשובים הוא עושה אותם והוא מתאוה אל הפעולות הרעות ונכסף אליהם ויכבוש את יצרו. ויחלוק עליו בפעולותיו אל מה שיעירוהו אליו כחותיו ותאותו ותכונת נפשו. ויעשה הטובות והוא מצטער בעשייתם ונזוק. אבל החסיד הוא נמשך בפעולתו אחר מה שתעירהו תאותו. ותכונתו. ויעשה הטובות. והוא מתאוה ונכסף אליהם. ובהסכמה מן הפילוסופים שהחסיד יותר חשוב ויותר שלם מן המושל בנפשו. אבל אמרו שהמושל בנפשו כחסיד בענינים רבים. ומעלתו למטה ממנו בהכרח. להיותו מתאוה לפועל הרע ואע״פ שאינו עושה אותו. מפני שתשוקתו לרע היא תכונה רעה בנפש. וכבר אמר שלמה המלך עליו השלום כיוצא בזה (משלי כא) נפש רשע אותה רע. ואמר בשמחת החסיד במעשה הטוב. והצטער מי שאינו צדיק בעשייתה זה המאמר (שס ושם) שמחה לצדיק עשות משפט ומחתה לפועלי און. זהו הנראה מדברי הנביאים נאות למה שזכרוהו הפילוסופים. וכאשר חקרנו דברי חכמים בזה הענין נמצא להם שהמתאוה לעבירות ונכסף אליהם הוא יותר חשוב ויותר שלם. מאשר לא יתאוה אליהם ולא יצטער בהנחתם עד שאמרו שכל אשר יהיה האדם יוחר חשוב ויותר שלם תהיה [יותר] תשוקתו לעבירות והצטערו בהנחתם יותר גדול. והביאו בזה הדברים (סוכה נכ.) ואמרו כל הגדול מחבירו יצרו גדול ממנו. ולא דים זה. עד שאמרו ששכר המושל בנפשו גדול לפי רוב צערו במשלו בנפשו ואמרו(אכוח ס״ה מכ״ג) לפום צערא אגרא. ויותר מזה שהם ציוו להיות האדם מתאוה לעבירות. עד שהזהירו מלומר שאני בטבעי לא אתאוה לזאת העבירה ואע״פ שלא אסרה התורה. והוא אמרם [ת״כ פ׳ קדושים ע״ש] רשב״ג אומר לא יאמר אדם אי אפשי לאכול בשר בחלב. אי אפשי ללבוש שעטנז. אי אפשי לבוא על הערוה. אלא אפשי ומה אעשה אבי שבשמים גזר עלי. ולפי המובן מפשוטי ב׳ המאמרים בתחלת המחשבה הן סותרין זה את זה. ואין הענין כן. אבל שניהם אמת. ואץ מחלוקת ביניהם כלל. והוא שהרעות אשר הן אצל הפילוסופים רעות. אשר אמרו שמי שלא יתאוה אליהם יותר חשוב מן המתאוה אליהן ויכבוש את יצרו מהן. הם הענינים המפורסמים אצל כל בני אדם שהם רעות כשפיכת דמים. וגניבה וגזילה ואוגאה. ולהזיק למי שלא הרע לו. ולגמול רע למטיב לו. ולבזות אב ואם. וכיוצא באלו. והן המצות [יומא סז: ושם חשיב גס גילוי עריוח והרמב״ס חשיב לקמן ג״ע וצ״ע. ועי׳ במהרש״א ס״א אסשר ליישב קצת] שאמרו עליהם חכמים ז״ל שאילו לא נכתבו ראוים הם לכתב (א) ויקראו אותם קצת (חכמינו האחרונים) [חכמים הראשונים]. אשר חלו חלי המדברים מצות השכליות ואין ספק שהנפש אשר תכסף לדבר מהם ותשתוקק אליו. שהיא חסרה. (נ) ושהנפש החשובה לא תתאוה לאחד מאלו הרעות כלל. ולא תצטער בהמנעם מהם. אבל הדברים שאמרו עליהם החכמים. שהכובש את יצרו מהם הוא יותר חשוב. וגמולו יותר גדול. הם התורות השמעיות וזה אמת שאלמלא התורה לא היו רעות כלל. ומפני זה אמרו שצריך האדם שיניח נפשו אוהבת אותם. ולא יהיה [לו] מונע מהם (אלא) [רק] התורה ובחון חכמתם ע״ה ובמה שהמשילו. שהם לא אמרו אל יאמר אדם אי אפשי להרוג הנפש אי אפשי לגנוב אי אפשי לכזב אלא אפשי ומה אעשה אבי שבשמים גזר עלי. אבל הביאו דברים שמעיים כלם. בשר בחלב. ולבישת שעטנז. ועריות. ואלו המצות וכיוצא בהן. הם אשר קראם הש״י חקות וארז״ל [יומא סז:] חקים שחקקתי לך אין לך רשות להרהר בהן. ועובדי כוכבים משיבין עליהם. והשטן מקטרג בהן כגון פרה אדומה. ושעיר המשתלח וכוי. ואשר קראו אותם האחרונים שכליות. יקראו מצות. כפי מה שבארו החכמים. הנה התבאר לך מכל מה שאמרנו איזה מן העבירות יהיה מי שלא ישתוקק אליהם יותר חשוב מן המשתוקק אליהם. וכובש יצרו מהן. ואיזה מהן יהיה הענץ בהפך וזה חרוש נפלא. בהעמיד שני המאמרים ולשונם מורה על אמיתת מה שבארנו. וכבר נשלמה כוונת זה הפרק

**  Vallentine Mitchell Press, Portland OR, 2004

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Aishet Chayil – Who Can Find A Virtuous Woman? (When She Is Being Hidden)

This essay starts on a personal note.

I heard the sad news a few days ago of the passing of a person I have known and loved virtually all of my life, “Auntie” Miriam Elias ע"ה. She was truly a remarkable human being – one might have called her a “Renaissance Woman” – as she excelled in so many different areas. She was first and foremost an educator and teacher of thousands of students over her long career. She was also an extremely gifted and prolific artist, a published author of many books, and a scholar who was the first student at the famed seminary in Gateshead. In short, she was a role model and trailblazer for many women, using her rare combination of wisdom, grace, and spunky sense of fun to light up the lives of all who had the privilege of knowing her. I could go on and write a whole hesped and full description of how sorely she will be missed . . . but that is not the point of this essay.

Rather, I was moved to write this essay by the obituary that was printed upon her death in, a Chareidi website. I will not recount the entire obituary here, but it was fairly typical of many hespedim and obituaries that I have read and heard in the Chareidi world over the years. Here is a synopsis:

It is with great sadness that we report the passing of Mrs. Miriam Elias a”h . . .Mrs. Elias was the devoted wife of Rav Joseph Elias zt”l, renowned mechanech, noted author, and . . . one of this generation’s most distinguished mechanchim . . . serving at the forefront of chinuch in America for the last 70 years . . . [He] was principal at . . .Mrs. Elias was a true eizer kenegdo, supporting Rav Elias as he devoted his heart and mind all his life the chinuch of Klal Yisroel‘s children, authoring many bestselling works, most notably the classic ArtScroll Haggadah … It was thanks to the wisdom and support of Mrs. Elias that Rav Elias remained fully engaged … She was a true aishes chayil, a picture of royalty and a role model for bnos Yisroel. . .Mrs. Elias leaves behind a family of talmidei chachomim and marbitzei Torah. . . Yehi zichrah baruch.

As if there was basically nothing worthy of mentioning about this great woman except that she was the devoted wife of a great man and mother of terrific children, which of course is wonderful. 

And yet . . .

(To be fair, an obituary that appeared in HaModia did cite more of her own accomplishments, although (in my opinion), it was more about her role as her husband's wife than about herself. It was written by S. Cohen, about whom I know nothing except that she is a woman, or her first name would have been cited.)

At the funeral, various speakers (besides her children, who spoke beautifully and movingly) extolled some of her other virtues, and Baruch Hashem she was given a fitting tribute. But I write today not because of my personal kvetch that she was slighted in the published obituary. I write because that obituary is symptomatic of many such statements that I have heard about women over the years. For some reason, and almost without exception, when women are written or talked about at all, it is almost always in their roles as wives, mothers, and enablers, having played a role in the accomplishments of their husbands (and in producing daughters who have done the same.) It is rare – very rare – that a woman is celebrated for her own accomplishments and for the impact that she made on the world in her own right. The only such woman whom I can think of who was thus properly appreciated in recent years was Rebbetzin Batsheva Kanievsky zt”l, and even for her, the first facts that are usually cited are that she was the daughter of Rav Elyahsiv זצ"ל and yebodel l’Chaim, the wife of Rav Chaim Kanievsky שליט"א. Great women and their accomplishments are mostly unknown.

I know that some will have already raised their eyebrows at the sentiments expressed thus far. Regular readers of my rantings perhaps did not take me seriously when  I wrote recently that I consider myself a feminist; they might now assume that I have gone off the deep end. But I am quite resolute in my opinion that women ought to get a lot more equality in our communities, and that we should not be content with extolling platitudes that claim we honor women more than men, and that women are at a higher spiritual place than men, and so on.  If we want women, especially young women, to feel truly valued in traditional roles in our community, then we need to back up that talk with actions that show that we take this seriously. This is true not only in equal pay for equal work, and equal opportunities for promotion and advancement, but in truly equal valuation of the wonderful accomplishments of those women who have led lives of excellence, and are paragons of tzidkus, achievement, and true worth.

There is much discussion recently over the propriety of granting semicha to women; about the legitimacy of Maharats and partnership minyanim, and even about toanot and yoatzot Halacha. Without discussing these, it is clear to me that they signal a deep desire, among many women, to give expression to their talent, ability, and longing to make their mark in the world and to live a life of significant accomplishment. 
Clearly the traditional model is, and remains, that the greatest goal of a Jewish woman ought to be the building of a Jewish home – a home in which she creates an atmosphere of warmth, love, and Torah values that will produce wonderful children who are Yir'ei Shamayim, together with a mutually supportive husband. That is and should be her greatest desire.

But then again, that should also be the greatest desire of a Jewish man.

And yet, men are encouraged and celebrated for achieving additional great goals, while too often, women are not. While it certainly true that the woman is the “Akeret HaBayit” and that many women might be perfectly content to have their homes and families be their exclusive focus (and may they be blessed to be able to do so), many others want to accomplish other great goals as well, and not be hidden away from any public acclaim.

Perhaps if more young women would see that the traditional Jewish community gave them great opportunities for achievement and recognition in roles that are well within our Mesorah – of being not only great wives and mothers, but as educators, artists, writers, scholars, doctors, business professionals, therapists, scientists, attorneys, and so on – who create Kiddush Hashem by the way they conduct themselves with integrity, dignity, professionalism, and kindness, they would be less eager to seek non-traditional public Jewish roles that too often lead away from a respect for our Mesorah and great Tamidei Chachomim. It surely is time that the more right leaning segments of our community recognize the reality that more and more young women are engaged in pursuits that – while completely honoring the ways of their mothers and grandmothers – are different than what was available in previous generations, due to our rapidly changing world, and that they should be honored for doing so in the proper way.

On Tisha B’Av we will all be called upon, once again, to consider why is it that we cannot seem to shake off the plague of sinat chinom that has dogged us for thousands of years. I believe that part of it is undoubtedly caused when people justifiably feel that they have not received the honor that they are due, and begin to resent that others do not value their efforts and accomplishments. It is, of course, not only women, but all too often it could be anyone that does not share my hashkafah (worldview) or particular values; we find it too easy to write such people off and give them the respect that they genuinely deserve.  Perhaps this area is one piece that we might consider in bringing greater harmony and less machloket in our community.
Certainly. let us look forward to a time that our women will deservedly be celebrated for their achievements, as the verse concludes :
תְּנוּ לָהּ מִפְּרִי יָדֶיהָ וִיהַלְלוּהָ בַשְּׁעָרִים מַעֲשֶֹיהָ
 Give her of the fruit of her hands
and her deeds will praise her in the gates

Monday, July 6, 2015

A Supremely Wrong Decision: Judicial vs. Liberal Conservatism

The Supreme Court has spoken.

In Obergefell v.Hodges, the Court announced that Homosexual couples (hereinafter LGBT) have a “fundamental right of dignity” to marry each other, and this “fundamental right” must be upheld by all levels of state and federal government.

As this decision has many possible implications for the Orthodox Jewish community, the major organizations, including Agudath Israel, the Orthodox Union, and the RCA have issued warnings of dangers to come. Some are afraid of the moral implications in this major departure from the Judeo/Christian values upon which our country was founded. Others fear that Justice Alito's prescient warning that it "will be used to vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy. In the course of its opinion, the majority compares traditional marriage laws to laws that denied equal treatment for African-Americans and women. The implications of this analogy will be exploited by those who are determined to stamp out every vestige of dissent." He thus predicts that any refusal to bow to the LGBT agenda will not be tolerated, and rendered illegal. Matters ranging from clergy being compelled to marry LGBTs , to bakeries being coerced to provide wedding cakes for LGBT couples, coercion of parochial schools to hire LGBT teachers, and many other likely scenarios are already being debated. Religious liberty for those who cleave to their traditional beliefs is under attack, and only time will tell how much damage will be done.

I write today to discuss a different aspect of this saga. Truth be told, the separation between Church and State has generally been a blessing for our community. Most of us understand and accept that though we may not like certain laws that are passed, and deplore the values they enshrine in our legal canon, nevertheless the price for a free society in a pluralistic culture is that we have to live and let live, accepting that in a democracy there will be some ideas more to our liking than others. Thus the idea that LGBTs have the right to call their union “marriage” – while not to our liking and while we may deplore its effect on society – is not something that I feel we have a right to protest, if the law would have come into being through legitimate means. We do not, indeed should not, attempt to impose Torah values upon our host country, but rather should embrace our role in leading exemplary lives, and hope that the power of Torah and its values will be a force for the good in our society.
However, this case was one decided by illegitimate means. The method by which the Court arrived at its decision concerns me greatly, both as an attorney interested in Constitutional Law, and more importantly, as an observer of how the Halachic process is being hijacked by agenda driven individuals.

In many media descriptions of the case, the reason that the four “conservative” justices dissented is due to their anti-LGBT, anti-liberal, pro-traditionalist political views; they see LGBTs as sinners and deviants who should be denied the rights granted to heterosexual couples. The liberal justices, on the other hand, are enlightened progressives – paragons of tolerance, understanding, and staunch defenders of liberty and freedom – who saw discrimination against LGBTs in denying them the right to marry. Reading of the actual dissents published by those justices will show otherwise.

Justice Scalia began, “The substance of today’s decree is not of immense personal importance to me. The law can recognize as marriage whatever . . . living arrangements it wishes.” In other words, his dissent had NOTHING to do with whether or not LGBT marriage should be recognized by society. “It is of overwhelming importance, however, who it is that rules me. Today’s decree says that my Ruler, and the Ruler of 320 million Americans coast-to-coast, is a majority of the nine lawyers on the Supreme Court. The opinion in these cases is the furthest extension in fact – and the furthest extension one can even imagine – of the Court’s claimed power to create liberties” that the Constitution and its Amendments neglect to mention. This practice of constitutional revision by an un-elected committee of nine, . . . robs the People of the most important liberty . . . the freedom to govern themselves”. He went on to describe (with delightful eloquence) that in this decision the Court had sunk to a new low of legislating from the bench, claiming to find words and values in the Constitution that simply aren't there, in order arrive at a desired result, whether or not supported by any fair reading of the Constitution. In a manner similar to the famous case of Roe v. Wade, when the Supreme Court decided that the Constitution (which says nothing remotely about abortions) forbids any restriction on abortions, this decision finds the fundamental right for LGBTs to marry somehow embedded in the constitutional text. I urge the interested reader to read Justice Scalia's opinion in full. Or as Chief Justice Roberts said, “Understand well what this dissent is about: It is not about whether, in my judgment, the institution of marriage should be changed to include same-sex couples. It is instead about whether, in our democratic republic, that decision should rest with the people acting through their elected representatives, or with five lawyers who happen to hold commissions authorizing them to resolve legal disputes according to law. The Constitution leaves no doubt about the answer.”

Political and Judicial Liberalism vs. Conservatism

The reason that the conservative Justices are being so vilified over this opinion is due to a common confusion conflating the debate between Political Liberalism vs. Conservatism and the one between Judicial Liberalism vs. Conservatism. We are all familiar with the Political divide between Liberals and Conservatives. They have different opinions on things such as whether or not the government or private individuals should solve problems, how welfare should work, the merits of abortion, the place of traditional values in society, and so on.

Judicial Liberalism vs. Conservatism is a different matter altogether.

Judicial Conservatives, believe that the role of judges is not to make law or “legislate from the bench”, but rather to look at laws as they were formulated by the legislature, and apply them as written, so long as they are not inconsistent with the Constitution. It is not for a judge to decide what the law should be, or to fix laws that were written poorly. If there is a challenge as to whether a law violates the Constitution, a judge ought to consider the words of the law and of the Constitution, and perhaps the intent of the writers when it was written. If the law does not conflict with the Constitution, it should stand; if not, it should be declared unconstitutional. The legislature then has the option of either re-writing the law, or seeking to amend the Constitution if the matter is important enough.

In contrast, Judicial Liberals believe that the Constitution is a “living document”; its meaning changing with the times. The role of the judge is not to not to read only the plain meaning of the words, but rather to apply his/her understanding of the broader meaning of constitutional principles as they apply in today's world with regard to the values of modern society, and if necessary, expand the meaning of the words of the Constitution to arrive at the result that they feel is just and proper, even if it does not fit in the plain meaning of the text.

The crux of this debate is whether societal issues are to be decided democratically between, typically, political liberals and conservatives, and voted upon by elected representatives, or whether the Court, by declaring a certain position “unconstitutional”, can end that debate and render one side of the argument illegal; not because of the words of the Constitution, but because of the judges' own sense of fairness and equity.

An illustrative example of this is the famous case of Roe v. Wade, holding that there women have a Constitutional fundamental right to have an abortion. As is well known, there were and are strong differences of societal opinions as to whether abortion on demand should be legal, based on a whole host of reasons. Various states wrote differing laws as to its legality, depending on the prevailing opinion in those states, until Roe v. Wade was decided.

Writing for the majority, Justice Blackmun held that although the Constitution is completely silent about abortions, one could discern from an “emanation of a penumbra” of several of the Constitution's rights – particularly the Fourteenth Amendments provision, “nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”, (a phrase repeatedly contorted by the Court into many different meanings in order to justify whatever the Court wished to hold) – that there is a general right to privacy, including a woman's right to terminate her pregnancy. This was a classic case of Judicial Liberalism, in which the words of the Constitution were said to mandate a result that – while appearing nowhere in the text – were what the Judges claimed that the Constitution taught when considered more broadly.

The main dissent, written by Justice White, set out the basic approach of a Judicial Conservative:

I find nothing in the language or history of the Constitution to support the Court's judgment. The Court simply fashions and announces a new constitutional right for pregnant women and, with scarcely any reason or authority for its action, invests that right with sufficient substance to override most existing state abortion statutes. The upshot is that the people and the legislatures of the 50 States are constitutionally disentitled to weigh the relative importance of the continued existence and development of the fetus, on the one hand, against a spectrum of possible impacts on the woman, on the other hand . . .

This, then, is DIFFERENT than the debate between political liberals and conservatives. It is about whether there are limits on the power of un-elected judges to find the result they wish in questionable readings of the Constitution, or whether the Court must read the Constitution and laws plainly, and let elected members of the Legislature decide democratically if and how to change the laws they deem necessary. THIS was the crux of the issue decided in the instant case of legalizing LGBT Marriage as well; whether there is a right to LGBT marriage somewhere in the Constitution (the majority view), or not (the Dissent). This question is very different from whether or not government or society should recognize LGBT marriage.

I write about this at some length because it is important to understand not only American civic affairs, but how these attitudes are also evident in regard to recent approach to Halachic innovations.

Halacha and Constitutional Law

When I went to law school, I often was asked if there are major differences between Jewish Law (Halacha) and American Secular law. One critical one is the following.

Halacha is based on the revealed will of G-d as given to the Nation of Israel via the prophecy of Moshe Rabbainu (Moses). That revealed Divine Law is the basis and measure for all of Halacha, whether explicit or Halacha L'Moshe MiSinai. While there is some purely Rabbinic law, instituted through the process of Gezeros and Takkanos, (preventative decrees or positive ordinances), the great majority is based on Divine Law. (cf. Rambam's Introduction to the Talmud for an in-depth exposition of the differences between Divine and Rabbinic law).

Conversely, American Law is man-made law; it is, as formulated by Lincoln, “of the people, by the people, for the people”. It was made by humans in a certain place and time, and ought to be able to be changeable by humans of another place or time.

Both systems have ways in which the laws are to be applied to the infinite varieties of situations that will arise.

In the case of American law, the legislature is entrusted with making law, and the judiciary has the power of review to ensure that the laws do not conflict with bedrock principles, i.e. whether they are constitutional. These principles are designed to be very firm, but are ultimately changeable via the Amendment process, which although possible, is hard to achieve.

By contrast, Jewish Law is to be applied – ideally by a Sanhedrin, or in its absence by great Poskim – based on precedent and rigorous Halachic analysis. They may not make any law that conflicts with Divine Law, which is eternal and unchanging; there is no “Amendment”-like procedure available. Rabbinic Law may change very rarely, limited to when there is a consensus among virtually all accepted great Halachic scholars of a time that a new idea or change in Rabbinic Law is warranted. The task of Poskim is not to come up with new law, but rather to apply the Received law to new situations, by finding the truest application of timeless principles and texts to the matter at hand. Innovations, or changes in our Mesorah or traditional practice, are extremely rare, and are completely out of the question for basic Halacha.

Given my training in yeshivos for many years, and the respect thus gained for this way of thinking, it is unsurprising that I tend to agree wholeheartedly with the approach of Judicial Conservatives. While the Constitution, lehavdil, is not Torah M'Sinai, it is an extremely wise document that has been the basis of this greatest democracy on Earth for well over 200 years, and has served as a guide for the society that has brought more liberty, equality, and prosperity to its citizens than any other in world history. The Constitution, very much including its doctrine of the Separation of Powers, deserves to be treated with utmost respect. Implicit in that, is that one not read into the Constitution what is not there, in order to allow, or forbid, some practice based on whatever reason one may have, no matter how important. I thus applaud Justice Scalia and the other dissenters for refusing to be distracted from the great task and responsibility with which they were entrusted.

Thus far, the traditional view. Since time immemorial, however, there have been those who view Torah and Halacha differently. They do not see the Torah, and certainly Rabbinic Law, as faithful to a Divine Law. Rather, they see Jewish Law as being the product of human wisdom, perhaps written with some degree of divine inspiration, but ultimately human. To quote my neighbor down the street, Rabbi Gerald Skolnik of the Forest Hills Jewish Center on the recent LGBT decision, “we understand the Bible not as one divinely revealed-at-Sinai unified document, but rather as a product of different Biblical authors . . .[who] endeavored to translate the nature and content of the revelation at Sinai, whose exact content we are not privy to, into a system of behavioral and moral guideposts for the Jewish people”. All the more so they see the Constitution as the product of human genius, which ought to be adaptable to change if contemporary culture and values lead to a different way of thinking.

Until recently, it was only the non-Orthodox who took this approach to the Torah and Halacha. Whether it was the Haskalah, Reform or Conservative movements, or other forms of deviance from traditional views, the basis of the license that they granted themselves to change Halacha and permit that which had been always forbidden was to deny the Divine authorship of the Torah and the integrity of the Rabbinic Tradition in applying the Halacha.

In our time, however, a new and radically dangerous strain has developed, supposedly within Orthodoxy, who while claiming to subscribe to traditional beliefs regarding the Divine authorship of the Torah and the Rabbinic tradition, nevertheless has adopted the Conservative methodology toward Halachic decision-making. Rather than seeking to submit to Halachic authority, they first choose the desired outcome and then subjectively build a case that leads to it, by cherry-picking sources that favor the predetermined result; much like liberal jurists read into the law that which they wish to find there. This approach has been employed by Open Orthodox rabbis in their quest to omit certain morning blessings that do not conform with egalitarian values, or to allow for women to be ordained as Rabbis, or in publishing Halachic responsa that permit conversion without full acceptance of Mitzvot, or of serious changes in procedures for converting women, or that permit women to nurse in front on men in shul, and that encourage donating money to build churches, and many other Halachic innovations that go against our Mesorah.

Furthermore, unlike traditional methodology – in which contemplation of introducing new practices that overturn long and strongly held Halachic positions may be adjudicated, if at all, only by the most senior Poskim – young Open Orthodox rabbis who have neither served on a Beis Din nor received intensive training with Poskim anoint themselves competent to unilaterally adjudicate the most weighty and sensitive of issues. In short, rather than applying Halacha on its own terms, they seek to adapt Halacha to contemporary values. No surprise, then, that they are thrilled with the Obergefell decision.

In conclusion, it is important for we who hold the Halachic process sacrosanct, and who value intellectual and legal integrity in our system of law, both Jewish and secular, to not be swayed by emotional arguments to distort the law, but rather to deeply respect the law and the process by which its integrity is guarded. Only by supporting efforts to uphold the law, and rather than changing the law to suit us, will we abide as a people of integrity and eternal values.

Monday, June 22, 2015

What I Want To Be – Or What I Ought To Be

We are living in strange times. More and more, it seems that it must be the pre-Messianic era, (as foretold in the dicta of the famous final Mishna in Sotah 49b regarding the end of days), when social norms will be overturned, all modes of behavior accepted heretofore will be discarded and vice versa, and we will be left only with our faith in our Father in Heaven to guide us.

Particularly lately, the news has gone from strange to stranger. 

For weeks the headlines have been dominated by the story of Bruce Jenner, former Olympic Champion, then peripheral player in the First Family of the Absurd (the Kardashians), who has now finally liberated his inner soul, by displaying him/herself on the front pages of fashion magazines as Ms. Caitlyn Jenner. The news media and liberal intelligentsia have been falling over themselves to sing the praises of his/her heroism and courage; (the same media that routinely disparages and minimizes the sacrifices of our brave soldiers in the Armed Forces who routinely perform real acts of heroism and courage, while being demonized by our cultural elites as brutes and savages). The upshot – one's gender is what one wishes it to be, and woe to the “Hateful” person who might disagree.

One would think that is as strange as it gets. Not by a long shot.

We then hear from our fearless leader that he feels entitled to criticize Israel, and knows better than Israel what is good for Israel, as he is “the closest thing to a Jew that has ever sat” in the White House and, thus, any implication that his opinions are not consistent with Jewish values and the good of Israel are ridiculous and hurtful. The upshot – one's nationality is what one wishes it to be, and woe to the “Hurtful” person who might disagree.

But it gets stranger yet.

Just this week we were treated to the bizarre story of a former high ranking official of the NAACP, Rachel Dolezal. Apparently, although she was born to two white parents and grew up as a red haired, freckled teen, she has spent years disguising herself and telling everyone that she is really black, as she rose through the ranks of the NAACP. When challenged about this, she defended herself as really being a black person inside, as that is how she feels about herself. In fact, “Race as a construct has a fluid understanding. So I would say no, I have not lied about it.” The upshot – one's race is what one wishes it to be, and woe to the “Hateful” person who might disagree.

So there you have it. Even heretofore immutable inborn factors regarding a person such as Gender, Nationality, and Race, are now matters of personal choice. It is no longer how I was born, but who I feel myself to be inside, that governs.

Gender, Nationality, and Race, are now matters of personal choice. It is no longer how I was born, but who I feel myself to be inside, that governs.

One might think that this ethic has only affected the non-Jewish world. (*)  But surely in the Orthodox world – surely here they still cling to traditional mores and notions in matters of personal identity! No such luck.

Dr. Elana Sztokman writes this week in “The Forward”: The past two weeks have been historic for Jewish women. Orthodox women in both Israel and New York were ordained as clergy – although with a variety of titles from Maharat to Rabba to Rabbi, but effectively all as rabbis. While Yeshivat Maharat is now the veteran institution with five years of experience at this, Yeshivat Har’el appears more liberal in calling women “rabbi” or “rabba.” Israeli Orthodoxy thus effectively caught up with and then surpassed American Orthodoxy, creating a bizarre and beautiful historic twist in which organizations seem to racing against one another to demonstrate the greatest commitment to women’s advancement in religious Judaism.

And so we have arrived, in the Orthodox world, at a time when we have young women encouraged by certain Rabbis and Jewish leaders to be that which they are not, and cannot, be. A time that we are told that one's identity is determined not by who I am, but whom I “feel” that I am or whom I wish to be. Rather than the classic ethos of thanking G-d by saying שעשני כרצונו (Who has fashioned me according to His Divine Will), and striving to develop that potential as fully as possible, the goal is now to become not how G-d made me, but as I wish to be.

This short essay cannot deal with all of the complicated arguments for and against the ordination of women as Rabbis. For an excellent discussion, please see here. My focus is only on the underlying desire that causes people to wish to be that which they are not, rather than fully deepening the limitless potential of the way that G-d created them.

I want to be understood clearly. Of course, I do not mean to denigrate the striving of women to deepen their learning and Avodat Hashem, and see a world of difference between the spiritual motivations that underlie their striving and the disturbing thoughts that exercise the absurdities of Jenner and Dolezal and their ilk. I am NOT drawing a direct comparison. 

Having said that, I cannot help seeing it as unfortunate that these women strive to be not merely great Jewish women and students and teachers of Torah, but to be Rabbis and Dayanos(?), and although very different, it is nevertheless another example of people who wish to be something other than as they were created by the Almighty, who created us in our diverse roles, and determined for us who we are and what we are supposed to be doing in His world.

Rav Samson R. Hirsch spends much time in his commentary on Chapter 1 of Bereishis on the recurring theme of למינו, למינם, למיניהם , “according to its species.” He writes, “ We see, beginning from the simple plant, a law all-pervading and all-embracing, that of Le-mino, allowing each plant species to develop only within the limits set for it . . . this law governs the whole organic world . . . and underlies the strong prohibitions we find in the Torah against Kilayim, the intermixing of species . . . These mitzvos warn us to keep this law also as regards our own species, to impose the law G-d has given us upon our our own drives and energies, to realize in it all that we do and refrain from doing. . . Like all other living creatures, only within the confines of Divine law can we attain individual freedom and independence. The whole Torah is nothing but the Mitzvah of Le-mino that was given to the man of Israel . . . G-d needs in His world the blade of grass as well as the cedar, the ear of corn, as well as the grapes of the vine. He has given to each its own law, within which each is to live its own appointed life, without questioning why it is a blade of grass and not a cedar, an ear of corn, and not a vine. Each leaves the planning of the world to G-d, and is happy to make its own contribution to the whole. . . G-d's purpose will be attained only if each will fulfill the mission and obey the law that G-d has assigned to him. Through the performance of duty he will make the contribution that is required of him for the common good." (See there for a beautiful connection with Parshas Chukas.)

It may surprise the reader of these lines, but I consider myself a feminist, and indeed consider the Torah in general as feminist. Of course, one must define one's terms, to be properly understood. If feminism means that women should be treated with equal respect, given equal pay for equal work, celebrated for their knowledge and wisdom, and treated with dignity at least as equal to the way men are treated - then I am firmly a feminist, and join with my sisters in decrying any and all manifestations of women being treated as “less than” in any way.

But if feminism means that men women ought to be one and the same, that they were brought into the world to fulfill the same roles, and are expected to perform the same activities and share equally in all roles in life when not limited by differences in biology, then I am decidedly not a feminist. The radical feminism of Betty Friedan and the Feminist movement of the sixties and seventies, although having achieved some important gains for women in the aforementioned areas of positive feminism, particularly in the workplace, has done great damage to society.  It has resulted in untold misery for millions of young men and women who were convinced to pursue unnatural goals and face a world where men were prevented from being men and women could not truly be women. We need our women to be great women and our men to be great men, and not confused hybrids who strive for that which they are not.

In a recent article Orthodox “semicha” student Eryn London writes, “My reasons for wanting smicha and to be interacting on a halachic level have nothing to do with wanting to be a man . . . It has to do with the fact that I think that my voice (and of other women as well) should be heard in the Jewish conversation . . . There has to be a balance between both the feelings of being part of the community but also how Halacha is actualized.” While I sympathize with her feelings and agree that serious modern Orthodox women are far too often excluded from having a voice in Jewish communal affairs, that is not a reason to ordain women as Rabbis. People ought not get semicha in order to “have their voice heard.” Rather, semicha is a holy undertaking to be a guardian of our traditions, to be a bulwark to uphold the mesorah. If one's purpose in getting semicha is to be able to transform the Mesorah and to help usher in a different type of Orthodoxy than now exists (which is the gist of most of the rest of her article), perhaps it would be better not to get semicha at all, be it a man or a woman. What should motivate a budding spiritual leader is not to the ability to innovate or to have one's voice heard, but rather to be a conduit to transmit, as selflessly as possible, what has been entrusted to us by the Mesorah, and to inspire loyalty to it. 

The role of a Rabbi is about modeling what it is to be an Eved Hashem, a servant of G-d, who seeks to carry out the Master's wishes, not to seek to project “one's own voice” and to perform whatever service that one feels driven to offer.  

As a friend of mine put it, there is a major difference between getting a PhD and an MD. A PhD seeks to break new ground, to think of novel ideas, to develop new paradigms that were never considered before. As an MD, however, one innovates only most rarely. The goal is to preserve the patient's health, allowing the natural innate powers of the body to heal itself and expunge outside influences that have invaded the system, thus causing sickness and poor health. The role of a rabbi is like that of being a physician, watching over people's spiritual health, helping them to appreciate and see the beauty of our 3,500 year old Mesorah. It is about modeling what it is to be an Eved Hashem, a servant of G-d, who seeks to carry out the Master's wishes; not to seek to project “one's own voice” and to perform whatever service that one feels driven to offer. It is about fulfilling a mission.  It is not about my personal spiritual fulfillment or even my connection with Hashem.  It was and is about bringing the world to its fulfillment; creating a home for Hashem here on this earth and raising this world up to him. What one brings to the profession is enthusiasm, knowledge, ideology, and commitment; innovation is limited to finding new ways to inspire adherence to ancient wisdom, not to change Halachic norms.

I am all for celebrating the advancement of women's learning and of their contribution to our society. Let us be thrilled that women in our time – freed by technology from the burdensome domestic chores of tour grandmothers – can engage in far more learning and scholarly pursuits, and can blessedly share their special perspective on Torah and life. I believe firmly that women today can be not only great mothers and wives, but great contributors to our discourse on Torah and all the great issues of the day. 
  • As a Rabbi who has benefited greatly from the Torah taught by Nechama Leibowitz z”l, and who has learned much from some of the great women Torah teachers of our day Tibodlu l'chaim such as Rebbetzins Faige Twerski, Tzippora Heller, Leah Kohn, Shira Smiles and Esther Wein, I have nothing but the greatest respect – not only for their vast knowledge – but also for the sensitive insights that they contribute, specifically with their feminine viewpoint. 
  • As an attorney, I have nothing but the highest regard for the female attorneys, judges, and fellow law students I have come to know, who are fully adept at complicated legal reasoning and possess knowledge of the law on par with, or greater than, any of their male counterparts.
Clearly there are many individuals of either gender that posses great intellectual gifts, and society benefits greatly if they are put to good use.

I think that I understand, as much as a male can, that it must be frustrating for some women who might wish to function as Rabbanim and Dayanim to be told that the Halacha and Mesorah precludes this, for reasons that I cannot go into in this essay. As Avdei Hashem, it behooves all of us, men and women, to follow Rav Hirsch's words quoted above, that “G-d's purpose will be attained only if each will fulfill the mission and obey the law that G-d has assigned to him” or her. There is no question that women have an enormously important role to play in our society. But as Great Women; not in taking on male roles. 
- - - - - - 
(*)  Here is a snippet of what is happening in the non-Orthodox Jewish world.   Just the other day, the Canadian Jewish National Fund canceled an invitation for Gov. Mike Huckabee – as wonderful and loyal a friend of Israel as any – to speak at their annual dinner, claiming that he “spread degrading hatefulness towards and about transgender people.” His sin? Saying in a speech to a Christian audience that “there’s something inherently wrong about forcing little children to be a part of this social experiment,” in which one might object to having one's young daughter greeted in the Ladies room by a forty-two year old man who feels more like a woman than a man,” and furthermore wondering what High School might have been like had the same rules applied in the locker room when he was growing up. Perhaps they will invite another pro-Israel speaker to replace him. Perhaps they will invite a leading liberal intellectual who is too brilliant to be pro-Israel. But at least he won't question the propriety of celebrating trans-gender people.

But this does not surprise me.   After all, for so much for the non-Orthodox Jewish world, Liberalism and Judaism are one and the same, and thus a sin against Liberal doctrine is a sin against Judaism.