The Stranger Within Your Gates: Answering Questions about Bais Abraham’s Recent Eshel Shabbat by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

April 22, 2013

On a recent Shabbat, Bais Abraham hosted speakers from Eshel (www.eshelonline.org), a national organization building communities of support, learning, and inclusion for Orthodox lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews. The three speakers were LGBT Orthodox individuals, two of whom came to observance later in life and one of whom grew up Chassidic. They each shared their personal journey of what it is like for them to be LGBT in the Orthodox community today. A recent Orthodox rabbinic effort to show compassion and support for LGBT Orthodox members of the Jewish family is reflected in the Statement of Principles signed by over 200 Orthodox rabbis. It can be found at http://statementofprinciplesnya.blogspot.com/ .

Over the past two weeks, I received many questions about our Shabbat program from people from different parts of the Orthodox and general Jewish communities. Here are some of the questions and my responses:

Q. Why don’t you just keep quiet about this? If someone is gay, let them sit in shul like anyone else. Why should we bring this out into the open and discuss it?

To remain silent is to reject people. We tend to demonize and stigmatize what we do not know. Individuals who fall prey to social stigmas are forced to feel like outsiders because no one will talk about their issues. Such individuals keep their conditions hidden but the cost will be that they do not feel part of the community. They will hear loud and clear what people implicitly feel, that they are flawed. In addition, there will be no forum or opportunity in which to educate others in the community about the suffering of the stigmatized individuals, thus there is no possibility for sensitivity to their experiences. This can result in a feeling of rejection, and psychological, if not actual, aloneness. When we ignore the challenges of people in our community and ignore our own conscious or unconscious rejection of them, we cannot expect them to feel included, and we cannot love them as ourselves. This is the case for LGBT Orthodox Jews.

Q. How can you feature something that is a violation of Jewish law?

Halacha (Jewish law) is, of course, of central importance to us as Orthodox Jews. Our Shabbat program, however, was not designed to focus on halacha. That is something that that every Orthodox LGBT person discusses privately with his or her rabbi. Our program was about moving toward a culture in which LGBT Jews do not have to feel excluded from the Orthodox community. It was to find a place of compassion and inclusion, so LGBT Orthodox Jews do not feel like outsiders, which historically has led to losing them entirely to Yiddishkeit, or worse.

Before we judge anyone who is LGBT or condemn them in the abstract, we owe it to ourselves to humanize this topic and hear real people tell their very real stories, or else we may violate the saying in Pirkey Avot, Al tidan es chavero ad shetagia li’mikomo. Do not judge another person until you have been in their place. Many would like to pretend that there are no LGBT people in our midst, but the weekend not only showed us that they are members of our community, but also underscored that they are our neighbors, our children, our brothers, our sisters, and our friends. They are in the stories presented to us, devout individuals who truly value Torah and mitzvot.

Q. Rabbi, does having this panel serve any religious purpose for those of us who are not LGBT? What can the rest of us learn from this about our own avodat Hashem (service to God)?

I found it inspiring that when faced with something that would make it so difficult to be observant and to remain within the Orthodox community–a community with little sensitivity to the feelings of those who are gay–they choose, despite feeling alienated, to remain in the community. Their love for Torah, for mitzvot, for Hashem and for the Jewish People is so strong that though it would be much easier to leave Orthodoxy, they do not. Among other things, we can learn from LGBT Orthodox Jews about commitment to Torah even in very difficult circumstances.

Q. If someone LGBT wants to be in our community, do you expect us to accept them? To give them aliyot?

In many shuls, even people who violate weighty mitzvot of various types between humans and G-d and between humans and other humans, are welcomed. Why should we treat the LGBT Jews any differently? Indeed it could be argued that not keeping kosher or other important mitzvot is a choice, and LGBT, as we now know, is not a choice. If it were, the vast majority of Orthodox LGBT people would choose not to be LGBT. With regard to people who are transgender, the halachic question arises with regard to whether to give them aliyot and where they should sit in shul. There are various opinions among poskim as to the status of the gender of transgender people, depending upon where in the process of transition they are.

Q. If you accept someone who is gay with a partner into the shul (since having a partner implies that they are intimately involved), then you are accepting something immoral. If you do away with standards of morality, then what’s to prevent you from welcoming a brother married to a sister?

The Rambam (Shmonah Pirakim, 6) includes sexual violations in the category of ritual mitzvot that have nothing to do with morality. Therefore, just because the Torah forbids both homosexual sexual acts and incest does not mean that they are morally equivalent, though both are halachically forbidden. We can say homosexuality is forbidden but we cannot say it presents a slippery moral slope.

Orthodox communities don’t have a custom of judging unfavorably what people are doing in their intimate lives. If we walk past a couple’s bedroom and the beds are pushed together, we assume they have followed halacha in terms of their intimate lives. We do not question who does and does not go to the mikvah and we assume that anyone who has any halachic challenges in their intimate lives is seeking the proper hadracha (guidance) in this in the way they carry out the complexities of their challenges.

Q. Isn’t treating a gay couple (with children) the same as other families in our shul a slippery slope?

As Orthodox Jews we all try our best to adhere to the halacha in it’s entirety in our desire to best serve Hashem, and we acknowledge that our fellow Torah-observant Jews strive to do the same or grow continually in that direction. That being said, it is not our responsibility or objective to oversee or judge the quality of everyone’s observance, especially in their private lives. Rather than looking to anyone’s private life, which is ultimately between those two people and, if Torah-observant, their Rabbi, let us rather enjoy and respect what is going on in their living rooms: welcoming guests, being careful with kashrut, not speaking loshon hara, honoring their fellow Jew, and raising Torah-centered families with Torah-centered values. Throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater by rejecting them, serves no purpose. This is a reality in our community and we need to start taking fundamental steps of inclusion and not persecution and/or condemnation.

Q. Won’t having gays in shul influence others to experiment with their sexuality and perhaps decide to be gay?

It is quite clear that people do not just decide to be LGBT. This is especially so of religious people. All of our participants testified to being born gay. Who indeed would choose to be gay and have to deal with the inner turmoil and alienation that they described?

Q. Why not suggest gay people get married to members of the opposite gender and stay in the closet?

Many gay Orthodox Jews do marry people of the opposite gender, hoping Hashem will perform a miracle and make it work, but alas, to no avail. We are who God made us. The pressure within the Orthodox community that is upon them, as we keep fixing them up with people of the opposite gender, as we keep assuming that no one is gay, pushes person after person into heterosexual relationships that only end up with both partners deeply hurt. Let’s stop assuming that every person who has not gotten married is looking for a heterosexual shidduch. It can lead to devastating results.

In sum, in most Orthodox communities today, LGBT members face rejection. Instead, imagine an Orthodox community that says to them, we understand you are LGBT and we understand the challenges you face as you try to lead an Orthodox life. Stay in the community. We accept you as a member of our family. Instead of leaving because you feel no compassion from us, stay and build a frum home, feel part of our community, be as whole with your Creator, with the Torah, and the Jewish people as you can. We are here to support you, not judge you. None of us are tzadikim.


Ugly Room – Beautiful Time – Rabbi Barry Gelman

May 9, 2012

I had a very similar experience to the one described in this article. 

Almost a year ago my father suffered a massive heart attack and eventually underwent a triple bypass. Thank God he is doing well.

During his hospitalization and recovery from surgery, I, along with other family members, spent many days Mount Sinai Hospital in NYC. 

Form the outset I was amazed at the work of the Satmar Bikkur Cholim who daily brought kosher food to a well stocked “Kosher Room” in the hospital. This included food for shabbat that was kept warm in a warming box in that special room. The room was not aesthetically pleasing, but it was beautiful in another way, in that it was a meeting place for Jews of all stripes, with one thing in common, a sick loved one. It offered comfort and the knowledge that we were not alone in our worry and concern. It was illness and that magical room that brought me, a Modern Orthodox Rabbi to share Seudah Shlishit with a Satmar Chassid and a Yeshivish women.

When there is common cause or concern, the differences based on details like what kind of kippah one wears or weather or not one is a zionist disappear. 

For me it served as a window into what could be if more Jews could be convinced to come together based on common cause rather than separate based on difference. 

I know it was just a moment in time, but it is moments like those that create big dreams.

 

 

 


Seeing the sincerity in those with whom we disagree

June 1, 2011

It is not easy for the Jewish people to see themselves as one. They label each other heretics and fanatics, and deem each other guilty of undermining the welfare, identity, and religious underpinnings of the Jewish people as a whole.

Some have noted that unfortunately it often takes persecution to bring Jewish unity.   Hitler for instance considered all Jews, even those who did not consider themselves Jewish, as part of the Jewish people.   The Jew who lived a fully assimilated life in 1940’s Germany, the Jew who converted to Christianity, and the Jew who did not look Jewish and perhaps did not even know they were, were all equally Jewish in qualifying for extermination.

In several weeks Jewish people all over the world will celebrate the Biblical holiday of Shavuot.  Though as described in the Bible this holiday is very much about thanking God for the wheat harvest, today a different aspect of the holiday, its commemoration of the divine revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai to the whole Jewish people, is more central.

The Midrash, Judaism’s most ancient commentary on the Bible, writes that the Jewish people accepted the Torah at Sinai together, “As one person with one heart.”   Perhaps this upcoming holiday of Shavuot can be the day when we put aside our differences, and reclaim that Sinaitic sense of being “One person with one heart.”

Each time I study what someone else in Judaism believes and hear how they see the world, even though their ideas are different from my strongly held religious beliefs, I am pleasantly surprised. I may still think that their views are incorrect, but what I see, with fresh eyes, is their good intentions and their integrity. Each time it becomes clear that they see what they are doing as best for their community, for the Jewish people, and for the world.  Jewish people and groups whom I thought were damaging the Jewish people, I found were actually engaging  in what they saw as correct religious life and values, caring much more about the Jewish people than I could have imagined.

For instance, the liberal rabbi  whom I thought was out to undermine Jewish tradition and herald assimilation turned out to be someone of deep faith and integrity, trying to the best of their ability and with good intentions, to engage the Jewish people in religious life and values, caring much more about Jewish tradition than I had imagined.  Or the fundamentalist rabbi that I thought was out to separate the Jewish people entirely from other Jews and from the outside world, whom I imagined was trying to compromise much of the light that Jews are commanded to bring to the nations, turned out to be a loving, caring, understanding human being who was much more open minded than I had imagined.

The great miracle of learning about the other, of seeing through another’s eyes if even for a moment, is not only appreciation of their integrity, not only a greater sense of unity with them, but taking something productive away, learning something I did not know before that could relate to and deepen my own beliefs, no matter how different from theirs.

The common denominator of all the Jewish groups is their claim to the Torah. In the spirit of this unity, Jewish people from all denominations will come together to study Torah all night long this Shavuot, Tuesday June 7th, at 11pm at Bais Abraham Congregation.   The event is sponsored by the Orthodox Bais Abraham Congregation, the Conservative Sharee Tzedek Synagogue, the Reform Central Reform Congregation, the Jewish Community Center and many others.   For more information call Rabbi Hyim Shafner 314-721-3030 or email rabbi@baisabe.com.


Bread And Butter Orthodoxy – Rabbi Barry Gelman

February 16, 2010

Modern Orthodox Jews have a tendency to offer pronouncements on controversial issues. Some of those issues are the definition of orthodox, the ordination of orthodox women and the place of homosexuals in the orthodox community.

As I have noted before, it seems that these issues and other “hot button” items exercise the emotions of many within the modern orthodox camp. These issues are important; my concern is that they tend to overshadow the “bread and butter” of Orthodox Judaism.

There are many who are quick to make bold statements on either side of the big issues, but who are silent and absent when it comes to Tefilla B’ Tzibbur (davening with a minyan each day) and regular Torah study.

There are two things about this pretense that concern me.

  1. It does not ring true: Our brothers and sisters to our right mock us (rightfully?) when we pronounce on issues while we do not “walk the walk” of Orthodoxy. What good is all the talk if our Modern Orthodox statements are not backed up by Orthodox living?

 

  1. We believe our own hype: Spending our time making declaration on these issues blinds us from the more important fundamental aspects of Orthodox life and leave us believing that as long as we are on the correct side of the argument on the cutting edge issue, even as we fail to excel in the primary and essential aspects of Judaism, we are OK.

We need to redirect our energies so others will take us seriously and so we can take ourselves seriously.


Taking a Critical View at Modern Orthodoxy, by Rabbi Asher Lopatin

August 3, 2009

Rabbi Asher Lopatin calls for Modern Orthodoxy to embrace Torah halachic rigor and fidelity to tradition as the third pillar of contemporary Orthodox Judaism.

Friends,

A few weeks ago I started outlining what I see as five pillars of contemporary Orthodox Judaism. I am not trying to displace the Maimonidian 13 principles of faith, nor the four principles of Rav Yosef Albo. I’m just trying to point out what I think are the key ingredients in being an Orthodox Jew today – and in maintaining our way of life for the future. The past few weeks have been particularly difficult, at least in the media, for our Chareidi brothers and sisters, and I have certainly done my share to point out the challenges I believe they face in working to sanctify God’s name. However, we Morethodox Jews have to look inwards as well, and I think the third pillar of Orthodoxy might serve also as a critique of Modern Orthodox Jews – at least in the way we normally see ourselves. The other two principles, Torah from Sinai and Innovation (Chiddush) from Sinai, are great rallying cries for Modern Orthodoxy. But now #3:

Intellectual and halachic rigor and discipline: When we closely observe our detailed laws of Kashrut, of davening, coming to minyan and making sure there is a minyan in our communities, of kavana (concentration, focus) in our davening , of the Shabbat, as it is expressed in its myriad of rituals and ethical aspects, of family purity in its own ritual and social aspects, the laws of gossiping and loving our fellow Jews and respecting our fellow human beings, then we become the vessels through which Torah can be interpreted and even rethought. The Netziv puts it in terms of the two words: “Lishmor ve’la’asot” – from Parshat Va’etchanan: We need to first be the preservers of the Torah and practice we inherit from the previous generation, then we can move on to relooking at everything with fresh, innovative eyes, and understand Torah for our generation. When we are preservers of Torah and Torah practice, then we become safe space for God’s infinite word – we become the rightful heirs of the tradition which we are obliged to re-examine for ourselves. Only through this rigor and commitment to Halacha, minhag (custom) and tradition can our lives reflect the living Torah which God gave us at Sinai.

Do we as Modern Orthodox Jews have this religious rigor in our lives? Do we have the passion? I think we see it in the Chareidi and Yeshivish world, but we need to see it in our world. MOREthodox – we have to be the one that are not only innovative, creative and responsive to our generation’s needs, we also have to be the ones that people can look to for all the strength that has come down to us from Moshe and Sinai.

I know that is an area that I work on, and perhaps in Israel our Modern Orthodox brothers and sisters do it better. But we have to make sure that Modern Orthodoxy is not lazy Orthodoxy. If it is, we will lose our right to be the innovators of Torah and we will lose our right to redefine what a Torah Jew is in 2009.

Let’s go to work!

Asher Lopatin


Orthodoxy and Diversity: How Open Should Our Communities Be?

June 12, 2009

Orthodoxy, in that it is a term coined and way of being formed in response to the European enlightenment’s openness to new ideas, is by definition something that has walls and limits, protecting those inside from potential, and perceived potential evils without.  But what happens when those walls keep out important Jewish values such as Jewish unity, loving the Jewish people and one’s neighbors, and engaging all the Jewish people in Jewish life?  To ask the question the opposite way, many Jewish communities claim that being welcoming is of importance, but what happens when welcoming comes up against other values such as fears of the slippery slope of approval of things we may not want to approve of, or feel Judaism should not condone?

For instance, if an intermarried family wanted to be part of our shul would we let them?   Where would we draw the line?  Could they have a family membership?  An aliyah?  Could the non-Jewish spouse if it was a man have peticha (opening the ark) or gelilah (rolling up the torah), honors  that do not technically require one to be Jewish but might, for many Jews, feel like giving tacit approval to someone, all of whose actions the torah may not approve of?   What about fears of legitimating what others are doing and unwittingly putting our approbation on things we do not think are in consonance with Torah, such as driving on Shabbat, gay Jews and their partners, Jews who do not keep kosher or pay their taxes?  Should we welcome all of them?

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What motivates us?

June 10, 2009

Posted by Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky

 

Why should we observe Shabbat? Or daven? Or put on tefillin, or eat only kosher, or follow the laws of niddah?   It’s gradually been occurring to me over the last year or two,  that within the Modern Orthodox world in which I live and teach, the answers to these questions have been shifting. In theory, the answer to any of these questions should start with the words, “because this is what God has commanded us to do”.  Sure, additional explanations might then be offered as to why God commanded us to do this, and further discussion might then be had about the benefits that result from the observance of this mitzvah, but it’s the fact that it was commanded by God that would seem to be the sole required element of the answer.

 

I derive this conclusion from the discussion in Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 60) which presents the debate as to whether or not the performance of mitzvoth requires kavannah, and proceeds to conclude that they do. What sort of kavannah is it that is crucial to the validity of mitzva performance? The Mishna Brura explains that while it is of course preferable to have kavannah concerning the nature and purpose of the particular mitzvah at hand, this is not the sort of kavannah that the Shulchan Aruch is discussing. The mandated minimal kavannah rather, is the kavannah “to fulfill through this act that which God has commanded” (Mishna Brura #7).

 

Increasingly though, I am finding myself discussing mitzvot,  and the reasons we should do them,  in terms of ideas that the Shulchan Aruch might classify  as “secondary”. We talk about observing Shabbat in terms of the benefit that it brings to us and to our families within these frenetic, technology-driven, over-programmed lives that we lead.  Yes we know of course, that God commanded us to do this. And yes, we are thankful to God for having given us the Shabbat. But the primary motivation does not seem to be framed in terms of command. The same is true for discussions about kashrut (“holy discipline within the world of material over-indulgence”), or about the recitation of brachot (“continuous God-consciousness in a secular world”). And I don’t think that my experience in teaching and thinking in this way is unique.

 

Why this shift in how we talk about the reasons we do mitzvot?  Is it all a part of the modern (post-modern? Who can keep up?) search for meaning? Does the idea of having been commanded by God subconsciously run too contrary to our autonomy-loving grain to be sufficiently motivating?  As scientists and rationalists, are we compensating for our leaps of faith in God and Torah through a ruthless devotion to establishing rational explanations for all of the mitzvot we do?

 

And in the final analysis is being motivated to observe the laws of niddah, for example, by the benefits it will bring in the area of non-sexual marital communication, in violation of the Shulchan Aruch’s directive? Are we doing something wrong in approaching mitzvot in this way? Or as long as we are acknowledging that God has in fact commanded us to do these things, can we still say that we are intending  “to fulfill through this act that which God has commanded” even when this is not the motivation per se?

I’d love to hear what you think!