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.


We Are All Jews…. Sort Of – Rabbi Barry Gelman

March 10, 2010

We Are All Jews…. Sort Of – Rabbi Barry Gelman

The Big Sort by Bill Bishop follows the phenomenon of the sorting of America into communities made up of like minded people with similar religious, political and social views. The also traces  some of the outcomes of this phenomenon including extremism and lack of the  ability to build consensus.

The book reminded me of an article written by Rabbi Howard Joseph on how the Netziv fought against Orthodox separation for the non orthodox community. Use link below to get to the article. http://www.edah.org/backend/JournalArticle/joseph.pdf

In many ways the Orthodox community in America has undergone a “sort” of our own as many orthodox communities and shuls are almost entirely made up of ortrhodox families etc.  While there may be some diversity among the types of orthodoxy, by and large, most of our communities are, by a large margin,
orthodox.

Personally, I think this is a bad thing. I prefer the old version of American Orthodoxy of “the shul that I do not go to is Orthodox” or as Dr. Jeffery Gurock has written about, the Non Observant Orthodox.

On an obvious level, I want as many people in Orthodox Shuls as possible, davenig and learning Torah. Modern Orthodox shuls are best suited to present Orthodoxy in a relevant and meaningful fashion to the non orthodox. It could be that the reason why that Chabad and Aish Hatorah have cornered the market on outreach is because modern orthodox shuls simply are unwelcome places for the non observant.

By the way, I think that the Chabad/Aish Hatorah model of shuls and centers that only or mainly cater to balei teshuva not the best way to go. It is sometimes hard for those folks transition to regular shuls.

There is another reason why I want the non observant in orthodox shul. Frankly, I think they make Orthodox shuls better places. One example of this is the fact that the presence of the non orthodox forces us to reconsider our attitudes towards the non observant.  It is no secret that many orthodox Jews speak disparagingly about the non observant. The presence of any group of “others” in our midst, over time, leads to greater understanding and thoughtfulness towards that group.

Anecdotal evidence tells me that there is more sensitivity towards non observant Jews from the sectors of the Orthodox community that regularly interacts with the non observant in a religious setting.  It should be noted that when I speak of sensitivity, I am referring to real concern and respect for the person and their views as opposed to “loving” the non observant because One sees them as a kiruv target.

Finally, there is much that orthodox shuls can gain in terms of Torah from the non observant. Bishop points out that one of the downsides of “sorting” is that sorted populations keep hearing their viewpoints reinforced, leaving no room for intellectual, political; or religious rethinking and clarification. People in that situation tend to get lazy and there is no need to defend positions. Such a life is safe, but without intellectual vigor.

Many non observant Jews do not come with the pre-existing notions, embedded ideas, or understanding of Torah and Judaism that the orthodox do. The questions and challenges posed by the non orthodox who do not take certain things for granted forces the orthodox to formulate clearer and more coherent understandings of Torah.

There is more to say on the subject, but I will leave it as is for now.

All in all, “sorting” is bad for the Jews.


Making Sure Judaism is Fair -By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

November 27, 2009

One of the tenets of Morethodoxy as I see it is finding as many and as wide a range of opportunities as possible within halacha for all Jews to engage in Judaism and connect to God.   In the case of women this means finding greater room for women’s leadership, women’s learning, women’s expression, and women’s teaching within Orthodoxy.  My collogue Rabbi Kanefsky has written that not finding enough room for women’s voices makes orthodoxy not only less palatable but less inspiring https://morethodoxy.org/2009/11/25/can-orthodoxy-get-better-market-share-part-2/ .

I would like to go a bit farther.  I think it’s important we have women’s voices expressed in Jewish leadership, Jewish teaching and in guiding the Jewish people because women have a unique voice. Over half of the human population is female.  Isn’t it possible that if we only hear the voice of men in Torah and in leadership that perhaps we are missing something very basic?  Perhaps the way that Devorah led the Jewish people was not the same as the way Moses led the Jewish People?  Maybe both voices are essential in order to have a complete whole.

If such an approach requires leniencies then those are the places that leniency is appropriate.  As my colleague Barry Gelman has written https://morethodoxy.org/2009/11/10/being-machmir-stringent-about-being-meikil-lenient-%E2%80%93-rabbi-barry-gelman/ and as I have written https://morethodoxy.org/2009/07/31/the-importance-of-leniency-and-the-leniencies-that-come-from-being-strict-by-rabbi-hyim-shafner/ leniency can be a very important halachic factor and indeed a stronger one than strictness.   Indeed, often stricture creates leniencies we have not intended.

Another reason that it is important we make room for women in Jewish leadership is that it is just not fair to say to 50% of the population, your talents cannot be used for holiness in every way.  In fact, we find this argument of “It is not fair” in the Torah itself.  “It is not fair” is a valid concern that was addressed by the highest levels of Jewish leadership.

When the Jewish people are told of the mitzvah of Passover some come to Moses and say “We are impure. Our relative has passed away and we have had to bury them, and so cannot bring the Passover offering.  It is not fair!  Why should we miss out?”  Moses doesn’t know what to do when “it is not fair” is in conflict with the law that God has given.   So Moses turns to God and God responds –Let’s find a way; let’s make a second Passover for them.

Read the rest of this entry »


Innovation in Halacha – Rabbi Barry Gelman

November 3, 2009

Our tag line – Morethodoxy: Exploring the Breadth Depth and Passion Of Orthodox Judaism means different things to different people. For me, it is a call to educate the Morethodox public, and others, about the fundamental ideas of Modern Orthodox Judaism. One of the foundations of Modern Orthodoxy is that the Torah does not have a limited warranty. The reform movement essentially clams that the rituals of the Torah does not speak to the modern Jew and are unnecessary to live a full Jewish life. On the other hand, certain segments of the Orthodox community believe that (or act as if) when it comes to ritual and practical halacha there is no room for the Torah to expand to incorporate modern sensibilities and concerns. Read the rest of this entry »


Of Money Laundering in Brooklyn and in Deal

July 29, 2009

Posted by Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky

All that has been said about the scandal emanating out of Brooklyn and Deal, N.J. is true. Yes, it’s time that (especially) Orthodox schools and communities focus our educational attention on instruction in ethics. Yes, we have to make sure to distinguish between Judaism – which teaches honesty and uprightness – and individual Jews – who too often shamefully neglect these teachings. And maybe even yes, we should be outraged over this Chilul Hashem, though frankly I’ve begun to doubt whether there is much left of God’s name to publicly desecrate any longer. Having conceded all of this, I still believe that the main issue is not being addressed, that of root causes.  

Everyone seems to be scratching their heads about why scandals like these are occurring with such regularity in our community, given how ostensibly learned and religious the main players are. A huge part of the answer, I think, lies in the basic strategy for confronting modernity that most segments of the Orthodox community adopted in the 19th century, and still intensely practice today.

 Given the choices of exploring the wider world that the dawn of modernity made accessible to us, but risking the dilution of our values and our numbers, or doing everything possible to shut out that world and its inhabitants in the name of preserving out precious inheritance, we have massively chosen the former. We have generally chosen to minimize or altogether avoid meaningful contact with the ideas, the books, the cultural trends of the wider world (though we seem to have recently absorbed its materialistic tendencies and its styles in music). And this policy has in turn necessitated our minimizing or altogether avoiding meaningful contact with non-Jew people and non-Jewish society.  It is the norm in most of our Orthodox communities that outside of commercial or professional contexts, adults have no significant personal relationships with non-Jews, and children have no such relationships period.

 Our strategy of consciously building insular societies has achieved some remarkable results. A century ago, who could have believed that the US would become the home to one the largest, most developed and institutionally successful Orthodox communities in the world? We have to credit our strategy of insularity in large measure for this. And while we have also paid the price for our insularity in many ways (we are probably the religious community that positively impacts the least on our wider society’s pressing social and economic ills), the price that is most embarrassing is the too-frequent involvement in illegal activity.

 What’s the connection between the two? There is a subtle mind game that we need to play in order to justify our insistent insularity. We, and our children, do encounter non-Jewish people and non-Jewish families in the simple contexts of everyday living- in stores, in parks, at medical and dental offices. And most often, they are nice people. They aim to be helpful, are frequently intelligent and cheerful, and have nice families. And the questions occur to us and to our children: Why then do we draw such impermeable social lines between us? Is there anything so wrong with they way they live? In order then, to justify our strict insularity, we cultivate a somewhat vague – and usually benign – sense that the others, outside of our world of Torah and Miztvot, are somehow lesser. They are – and hear the word as I’m writing it – goyim. And as such, it must be that our way is better than their way, our God is better than their God (we avoid even having to deal with this issue by consistently substituting “Hashem” for “God”), and our communities are holier than their communities. That’s how we justify our decision to keep ourselves socially and intellectually at arm’s length. And with only one more step, this mindset moves from being overly simplistic but benign, to being very dangerous. That step? That our Laws are better than their laws, and not only better, but are the only laws that really matter. After all, what ultimate significance could goyishe laws have? Of course the justification for the strategy of insularity need not produce such a dismissive attitude toward secular law. But as we’ve seen over and over again, it frequently does, and this price of the strategy of insularity gets paid on a regular basis.

 The solutions before us are straightforward. They are either to find a more sophisticated and honest way to understand and explain why we choose our social and intellectual insularity, or to embrace all that is good and valid in God’s wider world, not only without compromising our own religious integrity, but as an expression of our religious integrity. The latter is of course more challenging. But as the headlines are screaming to us, it is the path whose time has come.


Takes Many Spiritual Tools to Connect to an Infinite God –By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

July 10, 2009

On Prayer and Meditation

My first post on Morethodoxy, entitled “Openness and Passion,” outlined what I perceive to be an important process in living the Torah, being able to adopt the strengths one finds in each community and in the so many different approaches to mitzvoth and Torah, even if they are not our own primary practice. Custom is a powerful thing in Judaism, but sometimes stolidness can be spiritually detrimental.

I think that for many people, Jewish and not, prayer has become a recitation of words.   Several frum (observant) people who take davening (prayer) seriously have commented to me, “I like learning Torah and find it meaningful, but I just can’t relate, beyond the level of fulfilling an obligation, to tefilah (prayer).”

The Talmud (Berachot 32b) tells us that the Chasidim Harishonim, the Ancient Pious Ones, used to wait an hour before prayer (to prepare), pray for an hour, and take an hour after prayer (to recover?;  to return to this world?). They did it three times a day, and in fact the Talmud says we are obligated to do this also.

This prayer system does not sound like ours.  We rush in, pray to fulfill our obligation, perhaps concentrate a bit on its meaning and before whom we are praying, and finish.   It does not take us an hour to prepare or in fact any time to come down.  I am not, God forbid, criticizing the many Jews who are sincere about prayer and make great sacrifices to pray with a minyan at correct times or on their own.  I am no expert at or Tzadik in regard to prayer.  But I think that the Talmud’s ancient method of prayer may have been entirely unlike ours.

I imagine a prayer that takes an hour of preparation and an hour to come back is one that is highly meditative.  Kavvanah, the intent that is required in Jewish prayer, is sometimes understood as just understanding what the words mean or knowing that one is standing before the Almightily, but I think the Talmud here is offering us an important tool that reaches beyond the standard level of kavvanah in Jewish law.  Perhaps prayer is not supposed to be just saying words.  Perhaps prayer and the kavvanah that was seen in the time of the Talmud, as a prerequisite for prayer (one did not pray for three days after traveling according to the Talmud since we might lack concentration, Aruvin 65a), is something much more.

Judaism contains many spiritual tools that are often ignored if they are not part of our own personal or community’s customary practice.   There is a tradition of meditation in Judaism.  Clearly when it comes to prayer there was something deeper going in the Talmud that we have lost.  Even latter in Jewish history we have for instance Rav Nachman of Breslov’s instructions regarding prayer and meditation.  That one should go to the forest, preferably at night, and there speak to God in one’s own words (Torah 52).

I think we must reclaim some of Judaism’s spiritual tools.   In the Orthodox community we sometimes, in our punctiliousness, (and probably in reaction to Reform Judaism) allow the ma’aseh hamitzvah (the act of performing the mitzvah) to overshadow the inner kavvanah (intent), and the perhaps the telos of the mitzvah -connecting with God.

Let us be open to taking a closer look at the spiritual tools that exist within Judaism, even if they are not our own or those of our immediate community or custom; even if they feel foreign.  I would even suggest that sometimes there are Jewish spiritual tools that have become inaccessible or lost to us, such as meditation, and that it may take learning them in a non-Jewish context that has cultivated them well, in order to readapt them into Judaism.


Of Telling Tales and Banning Books

June 17, 2009

Posted by Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky

 

The discrepancies between the story of the spies as narrated in Shlach, and the way that the story is retold in the first chapter of Dvarim are significant and numerous.  They include (but are not limited to):

(1)   Whose initiative was it to send the spies? (God’s or Israel’s?)

(2)   What was the nature of the spies report when they returned? (Negative or positive?)

(3)   Who chastised the people when they depaired of being able to enter the land? (Caleb or Moshe?)

 

Every major parshan (exegete) addresses these discrepancies, each in his own way. I often wonder whether Abarbanel’s effort in this arena contributed to his commentary on humash being banned (or its use highly discouraged) in many quarters of the Orthodox world.

 

Abarbanel’s alleged heterodoxy here begins with the general observation that he makes about the first several chapters of Dvarim. Abarbanel states concerning these chapters, that “Moshe himself spoke them”, and that it was only through a subsequent Divine decision that they were included in the Torah (see pages 11 and 12 in the standard edition of Abarbanel on the Torah). He proceeds from this premise of human (albeit the greatest of human prophets) authorship of these chapters, to explain the genesis of the discrepancies between the telling and the retelling of the spy incident. Read the rest of this entry »