Archive for the ‘Orthodoxy’ Category

There are moments when the psychic and spiritual violence I have experienced in my life reappear. Heart races, adrenaline pumps, emotions explode. I don’t know why this still shocks me when it happens, but I find myself having out-of-body experiences, watching myself react in fear and anger at moments when I had expected to have a good handle on a situation. I had gone into Monday night’s hebrew/judaism class relatively excited for the discussion, because I knew we would be tackling the texts of Leviticus that prohibit sex between men. I had read Rabbi Greenberg’s book, an extended midrash on the text, wherein he argues that the text really forbids penetration of another man; and I’d read Rabbi Noily’s essay on the Hebrew of the passage. So I was coming in confident in my exegetical foundation for the discussion. What I was unprepared for was feeling like I was being assaulted over and over again by the conversation.

As an educator who often discusses difficult topics (e.g., Rwandan genocide; rape within American slavery; etc.), I have a deep ethical awareness and vigilance about the effect that those kinds of conversations can have on students whose own lives or personalities make them vulnerable to a kind of emotional or psychic violence that, although unintended and invisible, is nonetheless real. I found myself on the other side of that problem this week, where it felt like I was being beaten and abused by the conversation. I have complete trust in Rabbi Noily, and do not believe that she or any of my classmates intended any harm. Yet I was harmed, violated by the conversation.

Before tackling the Leviticus pieces, we split into chavrutot to discuss two passages, one from Genesis and one from Judges, that have been used for nearly 2000 years as justification for the murder and repression of homosexual men and as evidence for the sinfulness of homosexuality. The two stories contain much that our modern ethical sensibilities balk at, not least of which is the fact that the two householders in the stories both offer their virgin daughters as substitute offerings for the men the mobs want to rape.

By at least the third century C.E., the sin of Sodom was interpreted by both Christians and Jews as male-male sex, the desire of the mob to have sex with the male guests of the righteous hosts. God’s punishment for that sin was a fiery, sulfury death. From “sodomite” as an epithet for me and my kind, to “sodomy” as a legal designation for acts punishable by death as recently as the mid-19th century, to “sod off” still in common usage in British slang, the power of this myth has moved through time and informs millions of angry religious anti-gay activists in America today, from Focus on the Family to the Orthodox Union to the Mormon church.

In my chavrutah, and in the large group discussion, this history and mythic reading of the text was either ignored or silenced. When I tried to talk about it, I was told curtly that “that’s not what that passage even means”, as if their personal reading of the text magically erases the past 2000 years or the present hatred and fear of gay men. Understandably, the women wanted to talk about the chattel status of the virgin daughters in the text; but seemed unwilling (or unable) to make the connection of sexism and homophobia. In a classroom setting where I’m the teacher, for some reason I am usually able to maintain a bit of distance and guide conversations in certain ways. But in this setting, it felt like I was made invisible, that the evident homophobia of the passages (or at the very least the centuries of homophobic interpretations of the passage) was just swept away as incidental or unimportant. Again, I don’t think the silencing was on purpose; but it was the effect of the conversation.

When we drew back together to discuss Leviticus, the process continued, with people offering their readings of the text and with the elision of the meaning and power of a text that commands that men who lie with men be put to death as mere “misinterpretations.” Although I actually found the Rabbi’s read of the text compelling, listening to people discuss the value and moral insight of a text that calls me and people like me ‘abominations’ worthy of death to be nearly unbearable. And not one person—not a single one—condemned the obvious message of the text or the 2000 years of violence that flowed from it.

An acquaintance of mine from an online ex-mormon community I used to participate in became so livid with me a few years ago that she left the community for nearly two years. The argument was about the nature of child molestation, age, and sexual attraction; my argument was from an intellectual parsing of the social rules of sexuality and the biology of attraction. It had the effect on her of affirming her worst experiences of patriarchy and religious abuse. I do not think to this day that the substance of my arguments was bad, nor do I think that my intentions were wrong; but that really doesn’t matter when the person in front of me was suffering because the content of the conversation was doing violence to her. I do not know how to negotiate such troubled ethical waters, and I do not blame or condemn the people in my class for the discussion they were having. Yet I cannot and will not deny or elide the pain and excruciating memories that the conversation evoked.

Rationally speaking, the Rabbi’s reading offered an interesting perspective. She argued that the cultural context of Leviticus was a world in which penetration was always an act of domination and was by definition unwanted; therefore, penetration was seen as an act of violence by definition. Given that the most likely direct meaning of the two Leviticus verses are prohibitions against penetrating other males (most likely anally, but also perhaps orally), in its context it is reasonable to read the text as part of a larger moral theme in the Holiness Code against harming others. [It must be noted that this is part of a larger patriarchal system where women, in their abject status, are appropriate objects of penetration; so by extension, the Holiness code is actually forbidding the making of a man into a woman by penetrating him. Again, the interrelationship of homophobia and sexism.]

The apex of the Holiness Code in Leviticus 19 contains a core of ethical commands that resonate powerfully with me, and which most historians agree formed the basis of both Pharisaical teachings and the teachings of Jesus: protect the weak against the powerful and love other humans as you love yourself. So Rabbi Noily’s read is that for Jews of the post-return Mediterranean world, not penetrating another male (i.e., not making him into a woman) would be a law against domination and unethical power.

Although rationally (and ethically) I like the ideas and ethics of that reading, my experience of her reading was of having been erased from the text and from history. How easy it is for the process of midrash and interpretation to disconnect from history and context of the teachers and students. One student was excited to use this reading as amunition against her fundamentalist family; but without understanding of the dominant and dominating interpretations of Leviticus within Christianity, without the full understanding that this is a complex and somewhat of a hopeful reinterpretation that flies in the face of the self-evident meaning of the text (male-male sex is an abomination and you are commanded to kill anyone who perpetrates it), there is simply no way that that reading can work in the political-religious context of today’s homophobic America (including the thousands of dollars the Orthodox Union raised for Prop 8).

Paul Ricoeur defines myth as

…not a false explanation by means of images and fables, but a traditional narration which relates to events that happened at the beginning of time and which has the purpose of providing grounds for the ritual actions of men [sic] today and, in a general manner, establishing all the forms of action and thought by which man [sic] understands himself in the world. (quoted in Idel, 21).

As a former literary guy (two bachelors degrees in literature), I am completely down with interpreting and reinterpreting texts. I love the long tradition of many ancient religions of various peoples in different times and places remaking the myth to meet its own needs. It is, in a great sense, why my friend Mira says that Hebrew and Torah are alive, not dead traditions. But my experience of trying to understand and interpret these key (for me) texts in Tanakh highlighted a major problem: Sometimes the myth cannot be salvaged. Sometimes the current needs, current understandings, current desires are just too different; the past’s myth too starkly unethical, too potentially violent for restoration.

If myth provides the foundations for thought and action in the world, what do you do with a myth so tainted by the patriarchy of its inception and so burdened by 2000 years of use to violent ends that it seems irredeemable? Is reinterpretation of a relatively reified text enough to get us out from under the weight of its origins or past? If our modern ethics have put us in a place where seeing people as they are, outside of halakhic, priestly requirements, is the foundational imperative, if protecting the weak against the powerful is really the ethical center, what do we do with a myth whose very core creates the social system that produces the weak in the first place?

For now for me, re-reading, reinterpreting this passage is insufficient. My wrestling with Torah and tanakh will have to include the ability to insist that the text can simply be wrong on its face. A mature spiritual life must allow (perhaps it even demands) making strong moral stances against tradition. Perhaps part of the holiness of Torah is that challenge to be a moral person in contradisctintion to the Book itself.

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A few weeks ago, a friend of mine told me that he didn’t think he could be a buddhist because he needed the sweeping imagination of hinduism or islam. At the time, I had only a vague understanding of what he meant: I imagined the brightly hued posters of hindu gods with animal heads, multiple limbs, crushing bodies under their feet; I imagined the erotic temple carvings of perfectly breasted women mid-coitus; and I imagined the poetry of Rumi and the away-carrying experience of divine union.

But it wasn’t until I started reading midrash and Jewish exegesis over the past couple of weeks that I have come to understand (I think) what he meant. I’ve just finished reading Rabbi Greenberg’s book Wrestling with God and Men about homosexuality in the Jewish tradition. After reading the introduction—which was quite moving to me—I thought it would be an apologia for homosexuality, similar to several I’d read in the Mormon and wider Christian contexts before. However, Rabbi Greenberg instead sets out to engage the foundational jewish texts—the Torah, Talmud, and Mishnah—in an exegetical and ultimately Midrashic mode.

I now understand the appeal and the joy in Jewish exegesis: It is anchored in a deep tradition of storytelling. In his journey through Talmud and a touch of Zohar, R. Greenberg recounts story after story, some of them fantastical (voices from heaven, angels, miracles) some of them mundane but deeply human (love and death, marriage and friendship). The book turned out to be less a legal argument, as I had expected when he started quoting Talmud, and more of an extended deep reading of various texts and stories, not just a scholarly pursuit of knowledge, but an exercise in imagination.  Not only creating a legal or halakhic apologia for homosexuality, but of imagining Jewish homosexuality into being.

Whereas modern judaism can sometimes appear to be almost protestant in its public face, Greenberg has exposed me to a narrative realm, a place of story-telling and imagination that I thought was only part of the Kabbalistic tradition. Moreover, his book exposed me to the more fantastical imagination of Kabbalah (which I had always experienced as textual and linguistic play, but which I now see as equally narrative and fantastical).

In sum, it’s like stepping into Judaism has opened up a whole new narrative tradition, a whole new world of myths, tales, stories, folklore, and imagination that I hadn’t even known existed.

And it tastes so good.

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I just started a new book today which consists of an interchange between a Reform and an Orthodox Rabbi. The first chapter is about the nature of truth and whether or not there exists absolute truth. As might be expected, the Orthodox Rabbi, Rabbi Yosef Reinman argues not only that there is such a truth, but that it can be found in Torah. Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, of the Reform movement, argues that truth is a moving target and that few human phenomena are more dangerous than the belief that one possesses the absolute truth.

In the course of this discussion, Rabbi Hirsch attempts to explain the search for truth as an end-in-view and as a worthwhile life-task, and he makes the claim that Judaism is at its best a frame for such an end.

Jewish or not, the feel of his passage resonates deeply with me, as one who has found through rigorous academic study and hard personal experience that life holds no ultimate answers, only more questions. This dovetails beautifully with pieces of Buddhism and even scientific inquiry as well.

You don’t always have to have an explanation. Keep trying to find an answer. The process is good for you. It makes you a better person—more sensitive, more compassionate, more discerning. If you don’t find the answer, keep going. This is certainly what the Jewish people and the Jewish journey characterize.

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As I learn and study about Judaism, I have inevitably come up against the complex set of practices and laws that constitute a Jewish life. I will treat my study of mitzvot (the obligatory deeds or acts of Judaism) and my reactions to specific mitzvot in a later post. Here I want to explore the general body of laws, legal interpretations, and the ongoing (more than 2000 years) argument about how and why to obey the mitzvot. This body of law, both oral and written, and expounded through the Talmud and later midrashes, is called halakhah. [I have readers who are unfamiliar with Judaism, and I am also trying to anchor ideas in my head; so apologies to my born-Jewish and expert readers if some of this feels elementary.]

I find that on one hand, halakhah is what I’m looking for in a spiritual home: A set of organizing practices and central values, a frame from which you can have deeper, more meaningful conversations. On the other hand, having been raised in a rather legalistic religion myself (how many times did I have to sit through a discussion about whether or not you could drink Coca-Cola, and if you did, would God’s spirit leave you?), I find myself wary, suspicious, and critical of religious rules generally, and efforts to draw in/out boundaries based on adherence to rules specifically.

History, Part 1: Reform Halakhah

In Jewish tradition, halakhah is the body of laws and interpretation of Torah. It’s traditional, derived from the “Oral Law” (if I understand correctly) and constitutes the rulings on Jewish practice vis-à-vis the Torah and the Mitzvot (obligatory deeds). One of the key innovations of the Reform movement (and by extension the Conservative movement and later the Reconstructionist movement) in the early 19th century was to historicize the Torah**, read it critically, and to rethink Jewish practice in light of the Enlightenment. Everything from Kashrut (dietary) to conversion, from dress to music in services were transformed, a process which continued in the United States. The Conservative movement was a reaction against nearly 100 years of radical changes in the Reform practices, and although they kept the historicized reading of the Torah and a politically liberal ethic, the Conservative movement sought to re-attach itself to traditional living and practice.

From what I’ve been reading about the Reform movement, it too has undergone a swing back to more traditional practices, although it remains open and diverse. One of the authors I’ve been reading suggests that the acceptance of converts and the increasing number of converts has put a kind of awareness into these liberal denominations, as gerim seek to understand Judaism it has pushed Reform synagogues to reexamine their laissez-faire attitude toward Halakhah since the early 1960s. In other words, she argues that the enthusiasm and practice of gerim are what have actually pushed the Reform movement to more traditional practice, which is an interesting sociological hypothesis (see Diamant.) Surely, services at my Reform synagogue, Sha’ar Zahav, don’t look or feel like the Reform services that I’ve been reading about, without kippot, with an organ and choir, etc.

Because halakhah has become more central to the practice of Reform judaism, I feel a need to understand it more deeply and to figure out what my place within it would be.  Because I’m someone much more attracted to meaningfulness and “soul” of a tradition rather than its rules, I wonder what halakhah would look like for me and my Jewish journey.

History, Part 2: Social Strategies of Survival

One of the key ways that cultural groups identify themselves is through their practice (using that word now in a sociological sense, not a religious one). How they act and behave in view of others and how they interact with others is the way that groups build social boundaries. In Jewish history, this sociological phenomenon becomes salient during Babylonian captivity. As is commonly noted by religious historians, one of the great innovations of the Hebrews was that during Babylonian captivity, they decided that they could carry their god with them. The universalization of god alone, however, would not have been enough for the preservation of group integrity.

Living within a majority, oppositional culture, the pressures were probably great (scholars speculate here) for assimilation into Mesopotamian culture. And indeed, we know now that much of what today we call “Jewish” was in fact borrowed from the Babylonian religions around them (e.g., Noah). But the Babylonians served simultaneously as a foil against which to build a separate ethno-religious identity, what today we would probably recognize as Jewish (e.g., rejection of certain practices that were seen as unclean (see Leviticus)). To further complicate matters, when the captive Jews were released (thanks to Cyrus the Great) and returned to Palestine++, they encountered Hebrews who had not been a part of the cultural innovations they had made in Babylon, and a battle for cultural authenticity began, which has never ceased among Jews (see today inter-denominational struggles, Israel vs. diaspora struggles, and inter-racial and inter-cultural struggles among the diaspora, with Jews inhabiting Palestine often having a de facto claim to authenticity).

That gives us two environmental dynamics within which Jews were reacting and living historically: 1) being a minority, more often than not beleaguered and oppressed; and 2) identification with other Jews who are problematically different from each other in tradition, language, dress, food, etc., because their traditions emerged in vastly different contexts, ranging from Kazakhstan to Alexandria, from Rome to Toledo, and from Mecca to Warsaw. These two dynamics gave us an emergent, ever-unfinished Judaism always in dialectic with itself and with often hostile goyim. It is this dialectic that produced, in my newly forming opinion, halakhah as it is understood today, especially in its historic and sociological contexts.

Halakhah as ‘Separation’

From this history and from Jews’ real, experiential effects of a carefully monitored religious practice within a highly surveilled and often ghettoized community—and from my sociological perspective—halakhah has come to mean separation. From what I can see, there is a long philosophical tradition of explaining the meaning of halakhah as separation. In the more liberal books I’ve been reading, this is often expressed as sacrilization, making something or a stretch of time or an act sacred.

In Mircea Eliade’s terms, this is the great division that religions make between the sacred and the profane, where the sacred becomes the locus of the real, the true, the universal. This split is mainly enacted, that is to say, it is not an intrinsic quality of the world (or its objects or people), but rather something that is created by the people who make it sacred through their acts. A child and convert (?) learn of the sacred through experiencing its meaning as the people around them make it.

But there is another piece which seems to come from the history of Jewish people as embattled minorities, which is a separation of Jewish people from everyone else. Now clearly, there are reasons for Jews to embrace separatism historically, so as a sociologist, my response is “of course.” There are clear reasons why an oppressed people would have a deep sense of “chosenness” (another idea shared with Mormonism that I always found ethically disturbing; I will return to the idea of chosenness in Judaism in a later post).

In Orthodox thinking, separation is a key and integral part of Jewish theology and thus of Jewishness. David Gelernter spends an entire chapter extolling the virtues of Jewish separation from the world in ways that I found not only problematic but deeply unethical. There are passages in his book that read like an early 20th century eugenics tract against race mixing. Gelernter works his philosophical acumen for all its worth to make the act and state of separation itself into something sacred, but when you read a passage like this—”as [Jews] marry Gentiles and do as Gentiles do, and sink back (with a well-earned sigh of relief) into the muddy ocean of mankind”—if you have any post-Shoah, post-Jim Crow, post-Stonewall, post-pogrom sensibility at all, you cannot help but gasp at the ethical blindness of this idea (see Ch. 2 and pp. 51).

Gelernter fears the dissolution of Jewish distinctiveness in the face of an accepting and relatively free social and cultural context for Jews in the United States. He makes empassioned arguments against conversion and especially against “mixing of blood” between Jews and Gentiles. To be frank, reading this chapter in his book felt so anachronistic, so unethical that I almost gave up my decision to explore Judaism (his was the first book I read, back in February).

But the context he fears is a real one: In the United States and much of the world, Jews find themselves at a new cross-roads historically. While there still is anti-semitism afoot, it is not the dominant paradigm that governs legally, socially, or culturally. In other words, in the U.S. (where most of the world’s Jews live), when there is no real outside pressure (Jews are, in my opinion, fully integrated into U.S. culture), what does it mean to be a Jew?

For a non-believing Jew, who does not believe in separation as an ethical position, and who finds the panentheism of Kabbalah more resonant than the sacred/profane dyad—that is, for a Jew like me—what should halakhah mean? Can it be anything more than a mere expression of identity?

Toward a Humanistic Critique of Halakhah

Sociologically, I understand both the historical need for “separation” of a minority people in dangerous circumstances, and I also understand the social function of religious practice as a separation of the world into sacred and profane.

But as someone who is seeking a practice, but who is atheist-panentheist, I am caught up short by the more conservative take on halakhah-as-separation. And as a humanist, I wonder if there isn’t a more universalistic or humane reading of halakhah, a halakhah for the present social and scientific realities, rather than one built in a past that, for all intents and purposes, no longer exists.

Surely, Judaism contains within it the intellectual and humanistic values that I hold dear, otherwise I would not be so seriously pursuing conversion. From gemilut khasidim (acts of kindness), tzedakah (acts of justice), and tikkun olam (repairing the world) come a central ethical and, for me, resonant way of living. How do these altruistic and forward looking ideals interact with a legal culture of minute and specific laws? How do the Talmudic teachings that extend the acts of kindness and justice and repair outside of the Jewish community combine with the Talmudic (and cultural) impetus to exclusion and separation?

Because I am at heart a humanist who finds beauty, truth, and goodness (as well as ugliness, lies, and evil) in all of humanity’s religious efforts, I want to create a Jewish identity for myself and be part of a Jewish community that looks outward from its spiritual home to the world as a positive and intentional act, rather than out of a need to express a separate identity.


**derived from German high criticism of the Bible, and which had a massive impact on Christianity as well; in the United States, this led to the liberalization of Congregationalism and the transformation of Unitarianism and the roots of American Transcendentalism (Emerson’s Nature being a prototypical panentheistic text); thus, German high criticism generally marks the beginning of liberalization of Western monotheism; the effect continues to be felt today both in Judaism and Christianity.

++I use the term “Palestine” with full awareness of the complexities of naming the land that has been the locus of so much bloodshed and identity politics for the past 3000 years. I use it as a term of ease rather than a political position.

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An old teacher of mine, a traditional Jew, suggested to me that I look into the writings and teachings of Steven Greenberg, the first openly gay orthodox rabbi. I’ve been poking around the internet and stumbled upon a brief teaching he made about remembering our gay ancestors. Although this was a message for Rosh Hashanah, it felt like it tied together a few strands of thought I’ve been having lately.

One strand is about the meaning of being a gay Jew. For me, I was not born into a Jewish family and discovered I was gay; I’m a gay man who is seriously drawn to Judaism, a religion with a less-than-perfect record regarding gay rights (actually quite parallel to American Christians in many ways). Judaism is an intensely familial and home-centered practice, and so an open question for me is what the place of an openly gay man would be in such a religious, spiritual practice.

A second strand is related to an ongoing question I have about the place of a convert in Judaism. Whereas my liberal and mystical Jewish friends have all, to a person, said more or less to me, “If you feel like a Jew, you are a Jew,” clearly that is not the attitude of many within the Jewish community. The orthodox rabbinate, for example, does not recognize conversions conducted by Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements. So in this very brief message, from an orthodox and gay rabbi, I found again one of the things that I love in Judaism: There is always another side, always another view, always another Jew. Orthodoxy is as complicated and fraught and contested as any of the other movements or as the various denominations are with each other.

This particular piece touched me in a way that is hard to explain, but connects with my own scholarly research and a belief I have that one of the key things that gay men and women need for meaningful lives in the present is to find ways to know each other across generations, to have a sense of time and connection through history and among ages.

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