Friday, December 23, 2011

Segregation: Intention and Consequence

When I started this blog, one thing was clear in my mind.  I definitely did not want this blog to devolve into yet another forum for group-think; the point was not to "bash" or criticize those whose philosophies and practices disagree with modern orthodoxy, without expressing anything in a positive manner.  My goal was not to elicit comments where people merely agree based upon their intuition, values, and the lifestyle choices they are comfortable with.  On the one hand, the point was to foster a serious discussion about important issues.  On the other, it was to discuss the underlying values that influence our tradition, practices, and lifestyles, without beating around the bush or missing the point. 

It is with this introduction that I turn (briefly) to the all important issue of gender segregation in the Orthodox world.  Over the years, the trend has developed whereby gender segregation is increasingly common even where it is not strictly required by halacha (Jewish Law).  This has included separate seating during wedding ceremonies, wedding meals, the lack of mixed social dancing between husband and wife, separate seating during classes, kiddushes, etc.  Often, this segragation tends to slowly reach out and expand into new areas.  Most recently, the demand for segregated bus routes has caused controvery in Israel, whereby women have been asked to move to the ill-fated "back of the bus."

Tznius, best translated as modesty, is a fundamental value in Jewish tradition.  Modesty applies to behavior and dress, to men and to women, and is always a value that ought to be considered and weighed in a given situation.  The dictionary defines it variously as "freedom from vanity," "simplicity," and "regard for decency of behavior, speech, dress, etc" (  It means all of these things in Judaism as well, and further commented is merited regarding non-sexual areas of modesty.

What I wanted to comment about today, however, is modesty in the usual context.  Normally, when modesty is mentioned, the speaker intends it to reference women's dress, and the insistence that women do not dress in an inappropriately revealing or promiscuous manner.  The value is simple; women will be most properly valued as the individuals they are, for their complete personalities if they are not objectified.  Dressing in an overly provocative way detracts from this, and ultimately causes disrespect.  In many senses, modesty is a feminist value.  Of course, that doesn't mean that women must be forced to dress without a sense of style, nor does it mean their femininity must be completely denied.  Everything in balance and moderation.

Segregation of women on a public bus goes too far.  How far?  So far that it goes nowhere.  It seems obvious that the current obsession with gender separation actually fights against the ultimate value at play.  If we're seeking to treat women as the individuals they are, then the current moves are a step in the wrong direction for several reasons:  1) By limiting interaction to such a degree, men will not be accustomed to dealing with women, leading to an oversexualization of any mundane encounter.  Normal interactions become filled with sexual tension, defeating the ultimate point and purpose of modesty.  Instead of thinking about a business deal, conversation, etc., men will be trained to think about the illicitness of a given interaction, and will be focused on matters of sexuality instead.  2)  By limiting the participation of women in the public sphere to an extreme degree, we disrespect womankind in another way.  Eliminating their participation in public discourse and events is harmful, and removes an important perspective of approximately half of the population.

To summarize, modesty is an important and vital value in Judaism.  It seeks to protect women from the objectification and sexualization all too common in modern society.  By swinging to the opposite extreme, we seek to cause similar effects; namely, women are considered sex objects precisely because of the extreme limitation of interaction with them.  Balance and common sense is useful when considering specific applications of these values.  Women definitely shouldn't be relegated to the back of the bus.

Happy Chanukah!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

YU Beacon: Open Confrontation

It seems like there's always something controversial brewing.  While it's not my intent to comment on every controversy that occurs in the Jewish world, I think that the current one merits special attention.

What I'm writing about today (you might have guessed from the title) is the debate and controversy caused by an article that appeared recently in the YU Beacon, a student run literary publication.  The Article (which can be read here) features the literary description of a pre-marital sexual encounter.  In the article, it is unclear whether the first person speaker is intended to be a fictional or non-fictional character; what is clear is that she is a female undergrad at YU and her boyfriend is also a YU student.  In the very short piece, it seems that the author comes to regret her actions and the shame that follows. 

Following the publication of this article, a back and forth resulted, culminating in the Beacon's loss of funding from the University and an end to its status as an official YU publication.  The publication will continue to exist as the voice of YU students who choose to write for it.  

Undeniably, the subject with the largest taboo in the Orthodox Jewish world is sexuality.  Sure, we discuss things from a legal perspective.  Every bride and groom usually learns the laws of taharat hamishpacha, family purity, and discussions about modesty and its values are commonplace in the Orthodox world.  However, the reality of life in the modern orthodox world is almost entirely ignored by the rabbinate.  That reality is as follows:  For better or worse (I would argue better, but that's a separate discussion), dating in the modern orthodox world has moved away from the shidduch model; instead, courtships are longer and usually involve the development of deep bonds and a strong relationship between individuals who would choose to marry.  Even when two people are formally set up by a shadchan, they still expect to build a relationship of some kind or another before marriage is on the table.

Given this reality, it is only inevitable that sexual tensions will rise to the forefront.  This tension is added to by the taboo surrounding the subject, and the embarrassment and shame that comes with discussing sexual experiences, feelings, tensions, etc.  Additionally, many traditional sources have primarily negative things to say about sexuality.  It should be avoided, it's sinful, etc.  One need look no further than takanas Ezra, no longer officially in effect, which would require men's immersion in the mikveh after any sexual experience in order to limit intercourse and prevent men from acting "like chickens."  Even when sex is permissible, it should be discouraged.

What I'm writing about today, however, is not sexuality in the Jewish religion per se.  Rather, the fact that an institution such as YU would censor student discussion on such an important topic is very disturbing.  Whether the leadership is aware or not, this is perhaps one of the most stressful and dominant issues dealt with by youth in the orthodox world.  Banning discussions about it will only serve to further the taboo, and continue the increasing irrelevance of Orthodox leadership in the lives of so many individuals.  I don't need to belabor the point, but this kind of approach doesn't need to turn people off to religion; it literally removes religion from the everyday lives of the Jewish people by silencing it on the important issues.  Rather than being concerned with image and appearance, leadership should be solely concerned with improving the lives of Judaism's adherents, and with helping to foster a dialogue about the today's important issues based on the divine teachings and truths we're so blessed to possess.  What a sad day when people can no longer express themselves and talk about the day's most important issues.  What a terrible day when a person can't freely convey the lessons they learned on such a difficult and timely topic.    

Thursday, December 1, 2011

"War on Christmas"

I hope that everyone had a nice Thanksgiving! I know it's been a while, and I apologize for the delay in posting.  Hopefully, there will be posts on a slightly more regular basis (2-3 times per week) in general.  I decided that we'd take a break from the morality stuff, at least for a little bit, and examine a local issue of great national interest.  After all, this blog is about religious relevance, and the discussion of important societal issues that intersect with religion is certainly appropriate.

This week, the Governor of Rhode Island (a great place to live!), Lincoln Chafee, caused a firestorm of debate by referring to the Christmas tree in the Statehouse as a "holiday tree."  Obviously, it's a Christmas tree, and isn't a "holiday tree" anymore than a menorah could aptly be described as a "holiday lamp."  Further, what other holiday is celebrated by the acquisition and display of a large evergreen.  Radio pundits and journalists were quick to proclaim that the governor was the next aggressor in the proverbial "War on Christmas" and the attempt to eliminate religion from the public sphere.

Briefly, some comments on the historical development of the law in this area.  Although many are familiar with the sacrosanct notion of "separation between church and state," the phrase appears exactly zero times in U.S. Constitution.  Rather, it is the natural byproduct of two important first amendment clauses. "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . ."  Establishment has come to be defined by the so-called Lemon Test, promulgated in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971).  The test has three components, and is meant to define establishment: 

1) A law or state action must have a secular purpose 
2) A law or state action must not have the primary purpose of advancing or inhibiting religion
3) A law or state action must not result in excessive government entanglement with religion

On the face of it, a Christmas tree, or holiday bush, or whatever you call it, would seem to violate the Lemon Test.  After all, it's primary purpose seems to be to advance a particular religion, and it could be said to represent an excessive entanglement with religion.  If a law fails any prong of the Lemon test, it is to be considered unconstitutional.  

That being said, the Supreme Court has upheld certain types of governmental holiday displays, so long as they can adequately be said to be secular in nature.  For example, in Lynch v. Donnelly (1984), the Court upheld a Christmas scene in nearby Pawtucket.  In that case, the rationale was that the scene included snowmen, candy canes, and other winter objects, demonstrating that it was merely a winter display, and not a Christmas display.  

Personally, I'd take a different approach.  It seems to me entirely dishonest to say that a "winter scene" is secular because it includes a snowman next to the "holiday tree."  It's a Christmas display and everyone knows it.  If someone wants to argue that Christmas has somehow become a national secular holiday, that might be a different story.  However, there's a more honest argument to be made on other grounds.  Just because the Christmas tree is clearly related to Christmas doesn't necessarily make the government action an establishment of religion.  If the governor, a Christian, wants to display a Christmas tree, it need not follow that Rhode Island is establishing Christianity as the state religion.  In fact, we all know that Rhode Island would never do such a thing, and does not actively discriminate based on religion in any which way.  Makes no difference here.  Therefore, these types of things should be allowed even if they violate the Lemon Test.  It's good in some cases, but in general, the test goes a little too far in determining what actually constitutes the establishment of religion.  

Monday, November 21, 2011

Morality and Halacha

In the opening post, I argued that legal and sociological decisions in the Jewish world are often debated on the wrong terms.  Specifically, I noted that the substantive moral element in a debate is often ignored, in favor of more procedural types of arguments.  To give a concrete example of this relatively abstract idea, I chose the recent controversy surrounding the blessing, "שלא עשני אשה".  Rather than a full blown discussion about what the blessing means, and whether it's seeming praise of male superiority is morally correct (if that is indeed what the blessing is saying), many argued that it cannot be eliminated because of tradition, because of the consensus of poskim (rabbinic decisors), or for other sociological reasons.  These may or may not have moral weight, I argued, but the argument should be on the merits.  Does the moral weight of adhering to tradition in such a case outweigh the moral wrong committed by a proclamation of women's inferiority?

The comments of one particular individual have caused me to realize that I need to take a big step backward.  I had made several assumptions, chief among them the assumption that halacha was in some way concerned with/related to morality.  Further, I had assumed as both an empirical (how it is) and theoretical (how it should be) matter that most Orthodox Jews are concerned with acting in a morally correct way.

Many, however, have long held that halacha is and should be independent of outside morality.  Rav Solovetichik often described a halachic system that operated with its own independent rules.  For example, his staunch opposition to Rabbi Emmanuel Rackman's Beit Din was based largely on his view of a halachic system that operated independent of reality (I will describe this more in its own post if you're unfamiliar with the incident).  Further, the great Israeli scholar Yeshayahu Leibowitz (see here) frequently and vociferously argued for a Jewish law divorced from morality.  There was a certain fear that modern values are temporary, and the mere product of feeble human contemplation.  Are we so arrogant as to give religious significance to the contemporary morals and values we believe in?  Further, the halachic system was often viewed as completely divine, and so the insertion of modern values into a halachic debate would represent modern man claiming he knows better than God himself.

While there is certainly value in caution, and we should not be too hasty in our approach to halacha, I believe that the approach outlined above is both dangerous and incorrect.
The whole purpose of this blog is to discuss the relevance of Orthodox Judaism in the modern world.  Divorcing the halacha from morality leads to a huge problem.  If halacha does not coincide with morality, then why follow the halachic system.  Many people would rather be moral than halachic, and understandably so, if the two can be pitted against each other.

Moreover, one cannot hide behind the divinity of the halachic system.  It is not right to assert that halacha defines morality, and what the halacha says is by definition the morally correct path, simply because it is the word of God.  While the commandments are from God, many of the most controversial issues in the modern day concern Rabbinic enactments, the pure product of the human mind.  Further, many more modern controversies concern custom, the product of communal action over the years.  While we have been blessed with enlightened Rabbis and holy communities, they have certainly not been immune to the prejudices and biases of the past.  Humanity has progressed in many areas, and we have often led the charge or jumped right on board.  Judaism realized the value of monogamy, even though it was customarily permitted.  Judaism realized the evils of slavery and human ownership, no matter how kind the master was to his slaves, so slavery was strictly forbidden.  Judaism realized that women are not intellectually inferior to men (as it once believed), and so we now permit women to engage in the study of Torah.  Lastly, many of the actual commandments in the Torah seem to codify ancient values and norms, but this doesn't necessarily mean that they've been endorsed.  Just because the Torah orders people to engage in animal sacrifices doesn't necessarily mean that God is endorsing this method of service.  In fact, the Rambam argues that people had been used to this type of religious worship, and to provide for some other kind of worship would have been too dramatic for the early Israelites; therefore, a foolish ritual was given divine sanction.

I have argued that it is wrong to divorce Torah and morality.  In the next post, I will expound upon the views of Rabbi Eliezer Berkovitz, the great 20th century thinker, and elaborate on why Halacha and morality are and should continue to be intertwined.  

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Opening Post!

Lately, there's been a lot of discussion in the Orthodox world about "open orthodoxy" or those on the "far left."  Increasingly, many religious leaders are calling for purification within the ranks.  After all, a growing number of Rabbis seem to propose increasingly "radical" changes.  These changes have included the elimination of an actual bracha from the morning prayers (see here), the acceptance of female clergy in Orthodox synagogues, permissive attitudes toward homosexuals (recently culminating in a same gender ceremony performed by a Rabbi with semicha from YU), and a general sense that young modern Rabbis are quickly causing the erosion of the tradition based on transient modern values.  In an important article that elicited strong reaction among all camps, Rabbi Adlerstein opined that Modern Orthodoxy is at a Crossroads, and that it should (in his opinion) eliminate these fringe groups from its midst (see here).

Many important responses followed; most notably, Rabbi Michael Broyde and Rabbi Natan Slifkin.  While his arguments were numerous, Rabbi Broyde essentially argued that the definition of Modern Orthodoxy is that it is always at a Crossroads, as modernity is always changing, and there is a strong religious value in filtering and dealing with modernity (see here).  Rabbi Slifkin responded by noting that other forms of Orthodox Judaism have also transformed themselves when facing modernity (see here).  He argues that the proverbial pot is calling the kettle black.  True.

But the reason for this post, and in some sense, this whole blog, is that there is another compelling argument in support of at least discussing the important issues raised by the "Open Orthodoxy" crowd.  First, let me tell you a little bit about myself.  I did not grow up in an Orthodox home, and came to observance largely based on my own conclusions and feelings.  I sensed the truth of our tradition when reading the words of the Chumash as a teenager in high school, and I sensed the beauty of our tradition through experiences such as Shabbat lunch at the house of Rabbi Goldscheider, the local Conservative Rabbi.  By the time college came around, I had a lot to learn and a lot of growing to do; professing to believe in Jewish values is easy, but proving to live by them in a thoroughly consistent way proved much more challenging.

After college at the University of Pennsylvania, a year studying in Israel at Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh, four years in the semicha program at RIETS, during which I was also studying at Fordham Law School and living in Manhattan, I have come into contact with many different social groups, all of whom would consider themselves "observant."  On this blog, I would like to speak up for an argument I've never heard before.

I have seen and been a part of a large and growing group, many young and some old, who are experiencing a major and serious disconnect with religious culture and values in the Orthodox community, especially as propounded by the rabbinate.  Increasingly, there are some Rabbis who seem to focus on an artificially narrow list of sectarian concerns, while ignoring the major ethical issues of the day.  It's not only the content, but the language as well.    Rather than discussing dating, the politically correct terminology is the "shidduch crisis."  Rather than primarily discussing key components of a relationship, the discussion focuses on the number of dates, avoiding negiah and hirhurim asurim, and how learning more Torah is the best way to insure a "better" (read more attractive) wife.  In the eyes of a silent majority, not only are these values misplaced and distorted, the terminology is foreign and unhelpful.  Romantic relationships are perhaps the most important, certainly the most emotional part of life for a huge segment of Orthodox Jewry, and many religious leaders are too often missing the issues that are really of concern.  Really, people are concerned with issues of commitment, balancing the need for romance with the intellectual desire for a responsible and compatible spouse, with the constant focus on competition and the possibility that someone better is lurking somewhere just outside of their already large social network.  And of course, on what, if any, positive role sexuality is to have in a Jewish relationship. It's not only dating.  I just chose it as an example.  Many segments of the leadership are silent on the most important issues facing a huge segment of Jewry.  And this type of analysis could be conducted with almost every major issue.  

Many Orthodox Jews live modern lives where modern values are a given, not a controversy.  Further, they need no apology.  Democracy is an important value not because of any obscure reference in the rishonim but because we've come to believe deeply in the idea that all people are created equally in God's image, and it follows logically that everyone deserves an equal say.  It follows further that traditional Jewish attitudes toward non-Jews will be viewed as racist and unethical.  Women's rights are important not primarily because of religious sources, but because we've come to believe that women deserve the right to carve their own path and not be boxed in by the perceptions of men who doubt (and have historically denied) their capabilities.  Mixed shiurim and social functions are a given not because of teshuvos, and not because that's how it used to be, but because we've come to believe that women have important contributions to make, and that always separating leads to the very sexualization of women it aims to prevent.  If we can never safely consider the ideas of women, never safely interact with them, they must be inherently and primarily dangerous, according to the subtly ubiquitous message.  

Note:  In all of the arguments I've made above, I've used religious ideals to argue for a modern or open point of view.  I've argued for democracy based on the notion that everyone is created in God's image.  I've argued for women's rights not because women are equal in an egalitarian sense, but because religious values demand respect for all people as people, and our policies now cause men to look at women with less respect than they ought to, and view them primarily as physical creatures (ignoring the intellects and souls they possess).  If I wanted to, I could quote sources to show how these values stem from our tradition, and they most certainly do!

What I'm getting at, and what I'd like to discuss on this blog, is that we need to have a debate and discussion on the merits of a given issue.  A bracha can't be defended simply because all the poskim say you have to say it.  That's running away from the real question.  The real question is, "[i]s it morally wrong to say a particular bracha or not?"  Note that it may be, or it may not be; I'm not commenting about the answer, but the question must fairly be asked.   When considering whether something is morally wrong, we might want to take into account conservative notions of preserving the tradition by preventing alteration, or the idea that many previous generations said the bracha before us.  But the discussion should then focus on conservative and traditional values versus the idea that women (although different) are most certainly not inferior!  Too often, substantive arguments become arguments of process ( . . . but that's kefira! but Rebbi X says you can't do that! But you're just cherry-picking sources to fit your values!)  

For Judaism to remain relevant to a huge and silent majority of Modern Orthodox individuals, we need to intelligently and openly discuss the actual merits of specific issues, and we can't be afraid to do so.  I have a certain sense that people aren't really saying what they mean, and that this whole debate is happening on the wrong terms.