The Gay Child in My Daughter’s First Grade Class

February 18, 2016

by Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold

It was a parenting moment that came much sooner than I thought it would. My six year-old looked over at me at the dinner table and told me that her teacher had said that a boy “can’t marry a boy, and a girl can’t marry a girl.”

I paused, chewing.

“Well, what do you think?,” I asked her.

“Well, I know that isn’t true.”

She knows that isn’t true because we have had gay couples at our Shabbat table. She knows it isn’t true because she has a friend with two moms, and because her little sister has a boy in her class with two dads. She knows that sometimes boys marry boys. She knows that gay people exist. This is 2016.

I responded by reminding her (and my two- and four-year-old, who were also at the table) what I’ve told my kids many times: It’s true that MOST of the time, a boy marries and girl, and a girl marries a boy. But SOMEtimes, it does happen that a boy marries a boy and a girl marries a girl. (I think that “married” is the only word they have for attraction and romance, not to mention domestic partnership.)

I told her that it made me sad that her Morah said that it doesn’t happen. It made me sad for the people who are gay. This is how Hashem made them, and this Morah is pretending they do not exist. What I didn’t tell her, is that I was most sad for the gay child in her class. Because chances are that yes, even in her Orthodox day school, there is a child, or children, who will later discover (or might already know) that they are gay. Think what it does to these children to hear their Morah deny their existence.

My daughter knew her teacher wasn’t right, not only because of the gay people in her life. She also had read, many times, our books by Todd Parr, such as The Family Book, which states unequivocally, “Some families have two moms; some families have two dads,” along with “Some families look like each other; some families look like their pets.” Also true.

My daughter had also recently read a book called And Tango Makes Three, a true story about penguins in Central Park Zoo. Two boy penguins are not interested in the girl penguins, but are interested in each other and become companions. They are sad when they discover that they do not have an egg in their nest, like all the other penguins. The zookeeper finds an extra egg that had no penguin to take care of it, and Tango is born, making their happy union into a family. My daughter got the message, that if it’s biologically true for penguins, it could also be biologically true for humans.

These books were baby gifts from a dear long-time friend of my husband’s, who happens to be gay. I have to admit that, while I was content to read the Todd Parr books to my kids right away, I hid away And Tango Makes Three for many years – six years to be exact. I had only just pulled it off the top shelf and left it around for my first grader to read. It was not because my children weren’t ready for the book, but because I wasn’t ready for it. I wasn’t ready for what my children’s questions might be. I wasn’t sure of my own feelings about homosexulaity in the Orthodox community. I wasn’t sure how I would respond, how I would engage with my children’s curiosity.

What I’ve learned, as a parent and as an educator, is that many of these conversations can be quite simple. Especially with young kids, and even with older ones, the most important message is simply that gay people are here. They are all around us, they are among us, they might even be us. They are Jewish and not, Orthodox and not, married and not, with children and not. A simple dinner conversation, spoken in soft tones, and in six-year-old language, can make it clear to children that gay people are here, and that Hashem made them that way.

Thankfully the Orthodox community is beginning to address the reality that LGBTQ individuals are among us. But beyond that, I write this piece in order to model what it might look like to have conversations with our children about complex and difficult situations. LGBTQ issues are only one of many tough subjects that may arise around the dinner table. Be ready for other important conversations, too. Be ready to explain that we don’t drive on Shabbat while other Jews do, without demonizing or disenfranchising those other Jews, and without diminishing our deeply-held value of halacha. My daughter recently said that all Jewish girls wear skirts that cover the knee. I needed to address the fact that even though it is what we do in our own family, there are Jews who dress differently. Complex conversations like these also happen outside the Jewish realm, of course. We need to discuss racism in a way that children can understand, explaining that there have been times in history when people with a different skin color were treated differently, terribly, were even enslaved, and this is wrong. Somehow, we are well prepared with robust information for our children about why they shouldn’t talk to strangers and why it’s important that they work hard in school. Let’s also be ready to converse with them about the complexities of life.

The conversation I had with my children about homosexuality was not complicated. I didn’t quote psukim from the Torah, or enter into halachic discourse. There will be time for that. Parents of adolescents will need to take a more nuanced approach. However, if parents speak openly and honestly about these complex topics when children are young, then the conversations when they are older become less fraught, more open and honest.

And then there’s my daughter’s teacher. I think about what that teacher might have responded. Had she been adequately prepared and trained for this kind of question, she could have spoken about the fact that each person is created b’tzelem Elokim, in God’s image. She could have been honest about the fact that gay marriage is legal in Canada, and has been for over a decade. She might have even been able to voice her own discomfort (or the halachic difficulties) with gay marriage, while also acknowledging that being gay is nothing to be ashamed of. But the teacher was clearly caught off guard, and was not prepared to offer any answer, hence she simply brushed the question aside.

I was inspired by this video from an Eshel retreat. I hope that someday, every LGBTQ Orthodox young person can say something like this: “I’m still a Bais Yaakov girl; I just happen to be queer.” I think about that gay child in my daughter’s class. Will that child find a safe space to be both Orthodox and gay? Will he need to bifurcate his identity, thinking that he cannot be both frum and homosexual? He will, no doubt, face many challenges. But let him at least be recognized, rather than invisible.

Let us urge our day schools to equip our children’s teachers with the skills and sensitivity needed to respond to their questions. Let us open the door for these conversations with our children while they are young, although it is never too late to start. Let us take responsibility for making our community open and honest about the fact that gay people are among us. Do it for the gay child in your child’s class… who could even be your own.


The Purpose of Mitzvot by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

February 15, 2016

mosesDo mitzvot have reasons or are they purely a Divine decree?  Should we live lives insulated from other cultures or integrated with them?   Is religious life an ascetic one or should we take advantage of life’s pleasures?  Lots of theological profundities which impact the way we live our lives are the subject of much difference of opinion in Judaism going all the way back to the Talmud.

 
Different eras have required different answers to these fundamental questions.  For instance, the German Pietists in the 12th century were insular ascetics while at the same time in Spain the Sephardic sages were engaged in Spanish life, its pleasures and its poetry.

 
How should we see such central theological questions in our own time?

 
We are in the midst of reading on Shabbat about the crafting and erection of and the services within the Mishkan, the Tabernacle.  The Ark served as the hidden power center of the Tabernacle.  It contained the tablets of the law and was flanked on top by two golden kiruvim, cherubs.

 
We understand the need for an ark to honor and hold the tablets, it is something we ourselves have in our synagogues, but why golden cherubs?  Indeed, their idol-like appearance seems like a dangerous risk.  In fact there are those who say the heads of the cherubim were, like in the vision of Ezekiel, the heads of a shor, a cow, forming a sort of golden calf.

 

Maimonides (who very much believed that all mitzvot have reasons) in the Moreh Nivuchim, the Guide to the Perplexed, 3:49, writes:
Most of the “statutes” (hukkim), the reason of which is unknown to us, serve as a fence against idolatry. That I cannot explain some details of the above laws or show their use is owing to the fact that what we hear from others is not so dear as that which we see with our own eyes. Thus my knowledge of the Sabean doctrines, which I derived from books, is not as complete as the knowledge of those who have witnessed the public practice of those idolatrous customs, especially as they have been out of practice and entirely extinct since two thousand years. If we knew all the particulars of the Sabean worship, and were informed of all the details of those doctrines, we would clearly see the reason and wisdom of every detail in the sacrificial service, in the laws concerning things that are unclean, and in other laws, the object of which I am unable to state.

 
According to encyclopedia of myths and legends:

The cherub itself can be traced to mythologies of the Babylonians, Assyrians, and other peoples of the ancient Near East. In these cultures, cherubim were usually pictured as creatures with parts of four animals: the head of a bull (cow, calf), the wings of an eagle, the feet of a lion, and the tail of a serpent. The four animals represented the four seasons, the four cardinal directions (north, south, east, and west), and the four ancient elements (earth, air, fire, and water). These original cherubim guarded the entrances to temples and palaces.

 
The cherubim created the expectation of a deity in their center, but in the Mishkan, instead of an idol between the cherubs as in the ancient Near East, there was empty space.  It is from that space that the Divine voice emerged, teaching the Jewish people that their G-d is not concrete, not limited, without image.   That in the emptiness the Divine emerges.

 
We live in an era in which taamey hamitzvot, understanding the reasons for mitzvot as impactful in physical, emotional and spiritual ways is important.   Today the majority of the Jewish people do not find much meaning in keeping the Torah just because they are commanded.  They are proud to be Jewish but it is the nature of our era that without a profound sense of why mitzvot are beneficial, there will be little interest.  If we do not choose the correct attitudes for our era, we will be bereft.


How Shall We Secure Our Synagogues? by Yosef Kanefsky

January 12, 2016

It was billed as a “synagogue security meeting”, specifically for rabbis. And because we are living in the times we’re living, I drove over to our local Federation building yesterday and sat myself down around the board table. I wondered to myself though, why there needed to be a synagogue security meeting specifically for rabbis. Like so many of my colleagues, I am blessed with conscientious and smart lay-leadership who have been working hard on assessing and enhancing our synagogue’s security measures. And I was actually pretty certain that they had already been in contact with these very same Federation experts. What was it that was going to be rabbi-specific about this meeting, I asked myself. What is the specific rabbinic angle on the security situation?

Without taking anything away from what unfolded over the following hour – the presentation was extremely impressive, and I was grateful for having being invited to hear it – the bottom line was that the meeting didn’t really turn out to be rabbi-specific at all. It offered the same information that had been presented to lay-leaders. Nonetheless, the question about the unique rabbinic angle lingered with me. And the more I thought about it, the more sure I became that there certainly was one, that there must be something specific that I in particular should be focusing on.

My first idea emerged from the “pastoral” file. If people are anxious and worried, I reasoned, this must be affecting their family lives and relationships. And this is something that rabbis can and should engage, and have a unique way of doing so. But with some more contemplation, it occurred to me that the core issue is not pastoral in natural, rather spiritual. For living in a state of existential insecurity, can existentially threaten the life of the spirit.

Judaism, Torah, and Mitzvot all trade on the currency of optimism and faith. The world is a wondrous and miraculous place, we are asked to believe. God’s beneficence is in evidence everywhere, from the rising of the sun to the falling of the dew, from the food we have on our tables, to the basic bodily functioning that we too often take for granted, from the love we feel for our spouse, to the joy we derive from our children. And all of these blessings and wonders and miracles can and will persist and will be the gifts of generations to come, as long as we human beings can fulfill our fundamental charge to create communities and societies that function as effective delivery vehicles for these blessings and wonders. It is because we believe that the world is filled with goodness, that we structure our lives around perpetuating and channeling that goodness.

But what happens to us and our fundamental vision, when the foundations shake, when we begin to suspect that our fundamental optimism and faith are nothing more than naiveté and dangerous stupidity? How does this begin to reshape our personal vision, our communal goals?

We are taught, as a matter of Halacha, to see fellow human beings as noble bearers of the Divine image, whom we are commanded to greet cheerfully, whose material and emotional needs we are asked to engage, and to whom we are required to grant the benefit of the doubt. What happens to our ability to discharge our Halachik responsibilities when we feel no choice but to be fundamentally suspicious, to fear the worst, to see others as people from whom, first and foremost, we need to protect ourselves?

These are hard questions, and the geo-political reality which raises them is very real, and indeed very dangerous. Our worries over our security are very legitimate, and the need to enhance our security is very real. But what is the collateral damage? How will it change us, and change the nature of our Judaism? What we can do to protect ourselves from this threat?

I don’t know. Yet. But these are the rabbinic questions. Which is to say, these are the Jewish questions. And we need to have extraordinary meetings to address this too.


Can a Smoker Serve As A Witness?

January 3, 2016

6a00d83451b71f69e201774376c635970d-400wiRabbi Eliyahu Abergel (pronounced Aberjel) has taken an unprecedented step in practically applying the ban on smoking.

(See below for other considerations of this ruling, including applications to agunot)

After ruling that smoking is against Halacha, as many other poskim have done, he proceeds to take it one step further and bans a smoker from serving as a witness (Techumin Journal #33).
Rav Abergel’s  road to this conclusion is pretty straightforward.
He starts with the obligation to protect our well being.


שולחן ערוך יורה דעה הלכות מאכלי עובדי כוכבים סימן קטז
סעיף ה
צריך ליזהר מליתן מעות בפיו, ג שמא יש עליהן רוק יבש של מוכי שחין. ולא יתן ז] פס ידו תחת שחיו, שמא נגע ידו במצורע או בסם רע. ח] ולא יתן ככרלחם תחת השחי, מפני הזיעה. (ד) ולא יתן (ה) תבשיל ד ולא משקים תחת המטה, מפני שרוח רעה שורה עליהם. ולא ינעוץ סכין בתוך אתרוג או בתוךצנון, שמא יפול אדם על חודה, וימות. הגה: ט] וכן יזהר מכל דברים המביאים (ו) לידי סכנה, י] כי סכנתא חמירא מאיסורא ויש לחוש יותר לספק סכנה מלספק איסור, יא] ולכן אסור לילךבכל מקום סכנה כמו ה תחת קיר נטוי יב] או יחידי בלילה, יג] וכן אסרו לשתות מים מן הנהרות בלילה יד] או להניח פיו על קלוח המים לשתות, כי דברים אלו יש בהן חשש סכנה (רמב”ם). טו] ומנהגפשוט ו שלא לשתות מים <ד> בשעת (ז) התקופה, וכן כתבו הקדמונים, ואין לשנות (אבודרהם ומרדכי ס”פ כל שעה רוקח סימן ער”ה ומהרי”ל ומנהגים). טז] עוד כתבו שיש (ח) לברוח מן העיר כשדברבעיר, ויש לצאת מן העיר בתחלת הדבר, יז] <ה> ולא בסופו (תשובת מהרי”ל סי’ ל”ה /מ”א/). וכל אלו הדברים הם משום סכנה, ושומר נפשו ירחק מהם יח] ואסור לסמוך אנס או לסכן נפשו בכל כיוצאבזה. (ועיין בחושן משפט סימן תכ”ז).
He then moves on to the disqualification of a willful sinner from being a witness.
שולחן ערוך חושן משפט הלכות עדות סימן לד
עדים הפסולים מחמת עבירה, ובו ל”ה סעיפים
סעיף א
א }א{ רשע פסול לעדות, ב א) א’] ואפילו עד כשר, שיודע בחבירו שהוא רשע, ואין הדיינים מכירים רשעו, <א> אסור לו <ב> להעיד עמו, ג א{ אע”פשהוא <ג> עדות אמת (ל’ הרמב”ם פ”י מעדות). }ב{ ואצ”ל עד כשר שהוא יודע בעדות לחבירו, וידע שהעד השני שעמו עד שקר, שאסור לו להעיד.
סעיף ב
א] איזהו רשע, <ד> כל שעבר עבירה }ג{ שחייבים עליה מלקות; א’) ואצ”ל אם חייבים עליה מיתת ב”ד. ל”ש אם עבר לתיאבון, ל”ש אם עבר להכעיס.הגה: [א] ב] עבר עבירה ב) <ה> שאין בה מלקות, <ו> ב’] פסול מדרבנן (רבינו ירוחם נ”ב ח”ד).
סעיף ג
היתה עבירה <ז> שעבר מדרבנן, (א) }ד{ <ח> פסול מדרבנן. הגה: ג] וי”א בדבר מדבריהם, ב{ בעינן שעבר }ה{ ג’] משום חימוד ממון (ר”י נ”ב ח”ד ותוס’ פ’ איזהו נשך ועיטור).
Rav Abergel continues as follows:
One interesting aspect of the smoking in Halacha discussion is to follow the progression of the poskim on this issue.
In 2006 the Rabbinical Council of America published a teshuva prohibiting smoking. The Teshuva does a good job examining the reasons why Rav Feinstein did not forbid smoking and explaining why his reasoning no longer applies.
In the interim period, many poskim have declared smoking to be forbidden, including –  Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Rabbi Ephraim Greenblatt, Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl, Rav Eliezer Waldenberg and Rav Ovadia Yosef.
So we have gone from smoking being healthy to, while not good for you, not forbidden.
Finally, we come to Rav Abergel and his continuation of the process – from healthy, to not recommended, to forbidden but without practical consequences, to forbidden and therefore considered willfully sinful behavior.
Other considerations:
  1. This ruling would have interesting ramifications in terms of invalidating a witness, for example, in the case of a woman who is unable to secure a Get.
  1. For more on non observant witnesses, see here, pg. 135. Of course, if a non observant person is an acceptable witness, then so is a smoker and the point above is moot.
  1. We see here an example of a ruling that follows logic (if smoking is prohibited, then a smoker is a willful sinner and cannot serve as a witness), and can be used to achieve desirable goals (#1 above), perhaps being undone by another important ruling (#2).

Read the rest of this entry »


“HaShem and Allah. Who Knew?” posted by Yosef Kanefsky

December 22, 2015

I’m not a huge optimist when it comes to most of the world’s problems. Try as I may, optimism isn’t my default state. Somehow though, I am an incurable optimist when it comes to one thing – the proposition that if people devote time and energy to getting to know and understand one another, they will almost always emerge with mutual respect and admiration, and maybe even mutual affection. It is this optimism which, several years ago, led me to build into our B’nai & B’not Mitzvah program a “home-and home” series with the middle schoolers at our local Islamic Center.  We go and visit them on a Sunday, and soon thereafter, they come and visit us.

This past Sunday was “part one” of this year’s series. The first moments of our visit stood in stark contrast to our visits of previous years, as we were greeted by very visible evidence of heightened security.  We’re all afraid these days. But American Muslims may be the most afraid of all. We have known similar things ourselves of course.  Once we were safely inside however, the script of optimism and hope played out predictably and magically, even now, even today. Nervousness and awkwardness quickly gave way to mutual curiosity, smiles, and laughter. That’s what a good icebreaker, some delicious munchies, and small-group discussions can do, provide a tiny glimmer of what world peace might look like.

But not everything is predictable. Something always happens that you couldn’t have seen coming. Which usually turns out to be the most wonderful thing of all.  Once back in the big circle, the kids had more questions for one another, including about what Halal and Kosher each mean. Halal, we then learned, involves (among other things) the person doing the slaughtering saying bismillah – “in the name of Allah” – before he begins. Which generated the following remarkable exchange (of which I am not embellishing a single detail):

              Who is Allah? A person? A God? Who do you worship?

               Allah is God. The one God who created everything. Allah has 90 names, many of which we’re not supposed to pronounce, so we say “Allah”.

               Oh. And we say Hashem instead of pronouncing God’s actual name. That’s so cool.

               It’s the same God.

Lightbulbs go on around the room. Along with that feeling of intimacy that you get when you suddenly discover that someone you’ve known as an acquaintance is actually your third cousin.  And the small number of adults in the room know that the world has just changed, if only a little bit.

Of course, we went on from there to talk about ISIS and terrorism. Our kids candidly expressing their horror at what Muslim terrorists have perpetrated, and the Muslim kids expressing their anger at what is being done in the name of their religion. It will be their lot to confront this issue.  And it will be ours – the responsibility of our kids – to give them strength and support they need. And here is where it starts.

I’m not an optimist about most things. But in this, I believe in with all my soul.


What Is Chanukah?

December 7, 2015

Everyone loves Chanukah – the secular, the religious and, according to Rabbi Soloveitchik, even the communists.

He cites an amusing episode in: The Everlasting Chanukah (pg. 125) found in the Days of Deliverance volume.

“That same Hanukkah, I happened upon another curiosity…I chanced upon a copy of the Moscow newspaper Der Emes (Truth), the newspaper of the yestvektsiya, the Jewish  department of the notorious NKVD (the strong arm of the Soviet Union Secret Police). The newspaper also had an article on Hanukkah and the Hasmoneans. With every means at its disposal, the article argued that Hanukkah was actually a communist holiday, and the Jewish bourgeoisie and clerical world had no right to celebrate Hanukkah. Judah the Maccabee was the first Yesvekstsiya member.”

But, what is Chanukah? As the Talmud asks, “Mai Chanukah”? What is the nature of the day?

Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein begins with a well known understanding of the holiday

“We tend to perceive the miracle of Chanukah as the restoration of past glory: the success of the Jewish nation in surviving – both physically and spiritually; in preserving its character, and in maintaining its values and its tradition.

This perception is well grounded in the “al ha-nissim” addition to the Amida prayer and to Birkat Ha-mazon, where we emphasize that the Hasmoneans “purified Your Temple.”

The miracle of Chanukah [follows the same model: it] consists essentially of destroying impurity, removing the idol from the Temple, and restoring Israel to its original state and status. This approach understands Chanukah as a holiday of restoration.

But, Rabbi Lichtenstein then offers us a warning not to misunderstand Chanukkah.

“However, closer examination of the name “Chanuka” and its root (ch-n-k) reveal that its essence is…the creation of a new framework and its implementation.  “ This approach is rooted in the etymology of the word Hanukkah – which means to be newly consecrated or dedicated.

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Adam One as Paradigm for Communal Spiritual Leadership by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

November 30, 2015

 

Synagogue rabbis today are teachers, administrators, and pastors.  They give sermons, raise money, teach classes, facilitate Jewish lifecycle events, answer halakhic questions, coordinate meetings, occasionally change lightbulbs, absorb the anger and anxiety of individuals for the sake of the community’s greater health, assist Bar and Bat Mitzvah children with their drashot, comfort the mourner, support the orphan, the widow and the needy, give musar when it is required, and aid in facilitating conversations of leadership, planning, and diplomacy.  None of these are forbidden to women and in some of these roles, women may, in fact, be more adept.

 

The word “ordination,” when used for women in Orthodoxy, feels unorthodox.  Not because there is a halachic problem with the ordination of women.  In fact, the title of ordination today has few, if no, halachic repercussions. Today semicha, or ordination, is a degree.  It means one has studied certain sections of Jewish law and knows how to apply them.

During the post World War I era, Sarah Schenirer, a Polish seamstress with a passion for Jewish tradition, developed the first school system for Orthodox girls in history. By the eve of World War II, the network encompassed over two hundred and fifty schools with more than forty thousand pupils, primarily in Eastern Europe. Pictured here is the second graduating class of the Bais Ya’akov in Lodz, Poland, in 1934. Institution: Yehudis Bobker, Sydney, Australia

My discomfort with Orthodox women receiving the title Rabbi is that it feels like a blurring of the lines, differences between genders.  In Orthodox life, especially within the realm of prayer and mitzvot, gender lines are real and differences between male and female palpable.  The Torah itself certainly is interested in the differences between male and female as evidenced by the first chapter of Genesis.  Male and female in that first chapter, as Rabbi Soloveitchik points out, are created side by side as equals, made together in the image of God and together commanded to populate and subdue the world.  According to Rabbi Soloveitchik, this first chapter is not overshadowed by the second chapter in which Hava is created from Adam but independently stands as its own human paradigm.  Read the rest of this entry »