Putting the “J” Back in Orthodoxy

November 8, 2011

“Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?”

By humbly but firmly addressing this remarkable question to God, our father Avraham installed justice as a primary Jewish value. Everything, even the Divine intention, needs to be measured by the yardstick of justice. One can see the influence of Avraham’s position manifest in a variety of decisions later rendered by the Sages. The Torah rules, for example, that the “rebellious son” is to be judged, and ultimately executed, based upon his projected future malfeasance (“nidon al shem sofo”). One imagines that the Sages’ conclusions that this law was intended for academic but not practical purposes, was motivated by the fact that by normative legal standards, it is unjust to punish someone for sins he has not yet committed. (In the Midrash, God Himself explains His decision to save the young Ishmael from dying of thirst, in exactly this way.) Similarly, the Sages’ insistence that all of the Biblical  “eye for an eye” legislation must be read non-literally, explicitly derives from the inherent injustice of the literal application (Who’s to say that the victim’s eye and the perpetrators eye are of equal value?)

The primacy of justice as a religious value is in great evidence in the writings of the prophets of course, chief among them Isaiah, who declares the sacrificial rituals in the Temple to be of no value (or worse) as long as the widow and the orphan cannot find justice in that society. “Zion will be redeemed through justice”, Isaiah declares. Justice is a primary value, and its absence calls the value of our other forms of religious devotion in sharp question.

It has struck me recently though that while, as an Orthodox community, we are able to speak with clarity and passion about Torah and Mitzvot, about Hesed (kindness), and Tzniut (modesty / humility), we just don’t talk a lot about justice. We seem to feel uncomfortable around the term, associating it with center-left politics and with liberal forms of Judaism. Our shuls tend not to have social justice activities, and our schools, even when providing instruction in texts such as Parshat Mishpatim or Bava Metzia, focus entirely on conveying information, rather than on analyzing the material for how they are wrangling with questions of justice.  Perhaps we even fear that there is something dangerous or subversive about raising the issue of justice when we are engaged in the study of God’s law. How would we, for example, discuss with today’s fifth graders, the justice of a master not being liable when he mortally strikes his slave, as long as the slave did not succumb to his injury within the first 24 hours? The Torah’s explanation that “he (the slave) is the master’s property” probably would not suffice all by itself.

Our demotion of justice from being a first-tier value has not come without consequences for us. It has, for example, warped our communal conversation about Shalom Rubashkin, as at the same time that we decry the injustice of his sentencing, we have still not developed the language with which to describe the injustices he visited upon the workers in his factory. It hampers our ability to fully confront the phenomenon of agunot, as our conversation is often limited only to the halachik details of the laws of divorce or to the fruitless game of he said / she said, because  the plain and open cry of “injustice!” doesn’t seem to have sufficient currency to sway Orthodox public opinion. (Calling out the injustice cannot alone solve the problem of course, but it would go a long way toward shaming people into compliance.)

On the occasions that we have in fact assigned justice its proper place, we have achieved important things. The prevalence in Modern Orthodox circles of daughters reciting kaddish for parents, and of daughters marking their Bat Mitzvah in their shuls – each being practices which were met with considerable objection at first –  is the result of the  simple triumph of justice. Justice, one of our basic religious values.

 Let’s learn again how to use this powerful word. Let’s take the example of our father Avraham. And let us bring closer the day when Zion will be redeemed through justice.


Mocked by Kim Kardashian. You, Me, All of Us.

November 3, 2011

 A few months ago, I was sitting in the car with my 18 year old son, as Kim Kardashian’s name was mentioned on the radio. “Who is that guy?” I asked (though for the life of me I can’t explain what male name I though Kim was a diminutive of.) After one very long incredulous teenage stare, I at least learned that she’s not a guy.

 Over the last few days I couldn’t miss the news that Kim got married and the filed for divorce in the space of 72 days. I realize that it may all be part of her reality show, and that maybe I shouldn’t be taking the whole thing too seriously. But for the sake of an institution that a lot of us believe in deeply – the institution of marriage – I believe it’s worth speaking up.

 Whenever I work with couples as they plan their marriages, we talk about the rewards of marriage, but even more so about the covenant of marriage. Because it is a covenant. That’s what it is. To marry is to undertake the most sublime set of commitments that we will ever pledge to another human being. And people not prepared to do this, truly have no moral business getting married.

 Dr. Erich Fromm said it best in his classic book “The Art of Loving”, whose central thesis is that nobody can  passively “be in love” for very long. If we plan to love someone long-term, we have to be committed to engaging continuously in the activity of “loving” that person. For Fromm, this involves scared commitments to continuously  demonstrating “care, responsibility, respect, and knowledge.”  His elaboration on the element of “knowledge” is especially striking. “To respect a person is not possible without knowing him; care and responsibility would be blind if there were not guided by knowledge…. The knowledge which is an aspect of love, is possible only when I can transcend the concern for myself, and see the other person in his own terms. I may know, for instance, that a person is angry… but when I know him more deeply I know that he is anxious and worried, that he feels lonely…”

 Not surprisingly our own literature sounds many similar themes. In his “Lonely Man of Faith”, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik writes that the point of the Adam and Eve story is that a person who wants to overcome loneliness can do so only through a gesture of sacrifice. Adam literally gives part of himself to another, and as a result is able to establish with Eve, “a new kind of fellowship [where] not only hands are joined, but experiences as well, [where] one hears the rhythmic beat of hearts starved for existential companionship and all-embracing sympathy…” This is the marriage. Profound both in its transformative power and in the mutual commitment it demands. And it is ridiculed by a marriage that lasts 72 days.

 Even the sexual dimension of marriage is about the covenant. Commenting on the verse “and he shall cleave to is wife and they shall become one flesh,” the Netziv of Volozhin wrote, “ it is only the active effort of cleaving between husband and wife (i.e. sexual intimacy) that brings them closer together such that they become one”.  Marital sexuality is purposeful. It requires kavannah, in the same way that prayer does.  For it preserves and deepens the covenant.

 Whenever someone publicly mocks and diminishes the institution of marriage, the great majority of us who understand that marriage is our most scared covenant must respond. By calling out the offenders for what they’ve done, by insuring that our children understand what marriage really is, and by re-affirming our personal commitments to our covenanted partner.