Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in the Orthodox Community

Check out this interesting Statement of Principles, written and edited by leaders in the Modern Orthodox community:

For the last six months a number of Orthodox rabbis and educators have been preparing a statement of principles on the place of our brothers and sisters in our community who have a homosexual orientation.

The original draft was prepared by Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot. It was then commented upon by and revised based on the input from dozens of talmidei chachamim, educators, communal rabbis, mental health professionals and a number of individuals in our community who are homosexual in orientation.

Significant revisions were made based upon the input of Rabbi Aryeh Klapper and Rabbi Yitzchak Blau who were intimately involved in the process of editing and improving the document during the last three months.

The statement below is a consensus document arrived at after hundreds of hours of discussion,debate and editing. At the bottom, is the initial cohort of signators.

We, the undersigned Orthodox rabbis, rashei yeshiva, ramim, Jewish educators and communal leaders affirm the following principles with regard to the place of Jews with a homosexual orientation in our community:

1. All human beings are created in the image of God and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect (kevod haberiyot). Every Jew is obligated to fulfill the entire range of mitzvot between person and person in relation to persons who are homosexual or have feelings of same sex attraction. Embarrassing, harassing or demeaning someone with a homosexual orientation or same-sex attraction is a violation of Torah prohibitions that embody the deepest values of Judaism.
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Thoughts before Tisha B’av

Hey y’all, this is from Daniel Raphael Silverstein, a friend who does some good spoken word. He writes: During the 3 weeks of mourning, culminating in the 9th Av (Tisha B’Av) we mourn the destruction of the 2 previous Jewish Commonwealths, and especially the Temples that were their epicentres. This poem is an attempt to relate this ancient pain to our lives today, and to explain why Tisha B’Av is still very much relevant, not only to Jews, but to all humans. We each have to go through the process of mourning what is lacking, what is still missing from our world, in order to direct ourselves towards rebuilding it as we would like to see it. 1love.

How do you connect to Tisha B’av? What are you committing yourself to fixing?

Judaism, Food and Social Justice

Hey yall, this is the first part of 3 part series I’m writing for the Huffington Post about the Jewish food movement. I broke it down into 3 areas: sustainability, social justice, and religion/spirituality. I’m real excited to have this opportunity to get the word out about all the great things going in Jewish food to the Huffpo audience. What do you think I’m missing? What should I include in future posts? How does food, spiritual tradition, and social justice intersect in your life?

Love and Marriage (and religion)

Here’s an interesting article in last week’s Washington Post on people of different religions marrying each other. Overall, the article suggests that inter-religious couples are more likely to separate. Two standout parts for me:

1. Less than a quarter of the 18- to 23-year-old respondents in the National Study of Youth and Religion think it’s important to marry someone of the same faith.

And this quote:

2. “To limit yourself to only people of your own religion seemed bigoted. . . .

This is something I think about a lot. I totally identified with both of those statements when I was in college, but after visiting a church with someone I was dating seriously my senior year, I just realized I couldn’t marry someone who wasn’t Jewish. (Admittedly, it was a really lame church. Perhaps if she had taken me here I would have been more open-minded about the whole thing). Where are Jewschoolers at on this issue? Does it matter to you if your life partner is Jewish or not? Do you think intermarriage leads more often to divorce? How have interfaith dating/relationships played out in your lives?

The Vort: Behar-Bechukotai – Holy Justice, Righteous Spirituality

In this week’s parasha, the Torah states: “Do not give him your money for interest, and do not give your food for increase. I am Hashem, your G-d, Who took you out of the land of Egypt…” Vayikra 25:37-38.

The gemara in Bava Metzia (61b) notes 2 other pesukim that have the same formulation at the end “I am Hashem, your God, who took you out of the land of Egypt.” They are the mitzvah of tzitzit (Bamidbar 15:41) and the mitzvah to have just weights and balances: “You shall have correct scales, correct stones, a correct ephah, and a correct hin – I am Hashem, your G-d, Who brought you forth from the land of Egypt.” (Vayikra 19:36).

The gemara, in bringing these three verses, is suggesting some kind of link between tzitzit, weights, and charging interest. The Amora Rava suggests that the link has to do with God’s ability to deliver precise judgement. Just as God extricated the people from Egypt, exactly separating first born Jews from Egyptians in the 10th plague, so too will God know those who sell fake techeilet dye for tzitzit, add salt to their weights to manipulate them, and use clever financial tricks to charge interest. The message is – even if you can get away with schemes in the human realm, God knows. A powerful message for these times.

Perhaps we can take it one step further though. Out of the three mitzvot selected, one stands out. There is an obvious connection between charging interest and improper weights and scales – they both have to with financial oppression and creating mechanisms that take advantage of others unfairly – social justice. Tzitzit, however, doesn’t seem to fit. It is a self oriented, ritual miztvah designed to cultivate spiritual awareness. Can we learn something from the inclusion of a personal, ritual object with two miztvot that are interpersonal and designed to create social justice?

Perhaps Rava, in linking these three, was making broader statement about the connection between ritual, justice, and the Exodus from Egypt. There is a tendency in many communities to pay careful, strict attention to the ritual mitzvot. Tzitzit, davenning, kashrut, these kinds of mitzvot are highlighted again and again by our rabbinic authorities as what it means to serve God, INMHO as they should be. However, we see from our parasha and this gemara that God is just as exacting and scrupulous about the mitzvot bein adam l’chaveiro. They aren’t two different worlds, with one more or less important than the other. God took us out of Egypt and made us an am so that we might fulfill the divine will. The will to be holy is the same as the will to be just. It is the will to create a world where God can dwell.

We cannot separate out the ritual from the ethical: they are woven from the same divine cloth. Perhaps we are supposed to strive to integrate the ritual and ethical in all areas of our lives, infusing our social justice work with holiness and our spiritual practices with righteousness. I bless you and me that we succeed.

The Vort – Emor: The world of the Text, by Alana Vincent

The World of the Text

At first glance, this week’s parsha, filled as it is with laws concerning priests and temple offerings, has very little to say to most of us. But still, here it is, troubling our Saturday morning: ‘Emor. It does follow on quite neatly from last week’s reading of K’doshim–Israel, the kingdom of priests and holy people, has special laws setting it aside from the nations, and the kohanim, the priests of priests, have further laws setting them aside from the rest of Israel. Seems simple, right? Israel is holy as God is holy, and the kohanim are double-plus holy–the ideal, the pinnacle of human existence.

Except that the ideal human apparently can’t be ‘blemished’ (Lev. 21:16-23). And the ideal human can’t marry a woman who isn’t a virgin–which is troubling not even so much for what it says about sexuality, but for what it says about women, who are an accessory to ideal humanity without ever being in the running for it ourselves. We don’t really get to say or do much; we’re mant to just hang around being pure for the sake of the men in our lives (see especially Lev. 21:9–’When the daughter of a priest defiles herself through harlotry, it is her father whom she defiles’–and that’s the closest the text actually gets to talking to, rather than about, the women in question). These laws are disturbing to our modern sensibilities–sensibilities informed, in no small part, by values we’ve derived from a few millennia of Torah study.

So what do we do?

We could, of course, just ignore the beginning of ‘Emor, skip ahead to chapter 23, which details all the appointed festivals. And while we’re at it, we might as well skip the very end of the parsha, too, about stoning blasphemers, which also puts us into uncomfortable territory. That leaves us with a chapter and a half that safely avoid telling us anything we didn’t already know. It’s familiar. Comforting, even.

The problem here is that Torah isn’t meant to be comforting. ‘Study’ isn’t just repeating stuff you already know over and over again. Torah is challenging, and study–learning–means stepping outside your comfort zone, into the world of the text, and struggling to understand that world on its own terms.

I don’t mean that we should read what Emor has to say about disability as though we were still living back in 500 BCE. Nor should we shuffle it off to the side with a muttered apology about how ‘that was then, this is now’–or a lengthy apologia about how the parsha actually improves the treatment of ‘blemished’ people relative to the time at which it was written (though, please, follow that link because it’s a fantastic commentary on the history of interpretation of this bit of Torah). Both of these statements are true, of course, especially with relation to this parsha. But they’re both statements that help us to disengage, to avoid an argument with the text.

When I sat down to write this, I thought I’d end up saying something very pretty about mishpatim (commandments whose purpose can be logically understood) and chukkim (commandments to which a divine ‘Because I said so, that’s why’ is implicitly affixed), and how we tie ourselves up in knots, sometimes, trying to turn the latter into the former–trying to invent logic where there really isn’t much to be found. But even that seems, now, a bit too much like an easy answer: ‘Oh, the Torah isn’t saying that women aren’t human, or that disabled people are bad.It’s just saying they don’t get to serve God in the same way, because God said so. No point in getting worked up about it.’

This is Torah. We’re supposed to get worked up about it. If the uncomfortable bits of ‘Emor do nothing else, they’re a divine tap on the shoulder: ‘Hey, you. Pay attention! Do you REALLY believe I just said that?’

Sometimes, eventually, ‘No’ is the most honest–and faithful–answer we can give.

It’s always Pesach when you’re a robot

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How do you deal with the Shoah?

Yom HaShoah is upon us. I’m in Israel, where at 10 am everyone stops and a siren softly screams. It rocked me. This day, and the Holocaust in general, elicits so many different personal reactions inside me; it makes me feel crazy. These are some of the feelings I experienced today during Yom HaShoah:

Righteous indignation – We Jews bear witness to the worst kind of oppression and evil; today we must fight all forms of oppression around the world.
Confusion – How did the world stand by and let this happen?
Depression – The world has stood by and let lots of other terrible stuff happen.
Tribalism – I need to fight to protect my people.
Universalism – Ethnicities, races, religions – these social constructions are tools of oppression. Abolish them!
Doubt in humanity – Given the opportunity, many of us would be Nazis.
Doubt in God – where you at God?!
Faith in God – We survived the fiery furnace – we are truly the chosen people.
Religious motivation - I have to do mitzvot/learn Torah in honor of those whose lives were cut short.
Discomfort – These stories make me sad and uncomfortable. Why am I putting myself through this again?
Cynicism – Why do we let the Holocaust narrative dominate so much of Jewish life? Do we exploit it?
Purpose – I must remember.
Rage – Let’s go fight some skinheads.

I’m posting this for two reasons. First is, I think I’m not alone in having many different, conflicting reactions to the Shoah. In my experience, most Jewish communal space given to the Shoah today gravitates towards framing in simpler, less nuanced ways. As a community, we validate some of our internal experiences but leave out others from the conversation. How can we as a community deal with the Holocaust in a way that holds all of our conflicting feelings and reactions about it? Is it still too raw?

Second is, I’m curious to hear how other folks experience the Holocaust today. Do you resonate with some of the feelings I put up? Do you totally disagree? Am I being flippant? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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The Vort: Parashat Shmini – Search. Search.

This week, we read the heart of the Torah. The Talmud in Kiddushin states that our parasha, Shmini, contains the middle words of the entire Torah. The words describe Moshe’s quest to find an answer to a question. They are “darosh darash,” and Moses searched deeply. Thus, according to the gemara, the deepest point in the Torah is to deeply search.

This deep searching is critical to our work as Jews pursuing tzedek. Commitment to pursuing justice in our daily lives takes introspection and searching. We must deeply search our tzedakah habits. We must deeply search our consumer behavior and which businesses and industries we frequent. We must deeply search the way we spend our time. We must deeply search the way we treat our friends. We must deeply search the way we treat strangers. We must deeply search the policies and laws of our organizations, cities, and governments. We must deeply search for new ideas and innovations that address suffering. And so much more. Deep searching is the key to the strength, growth, and renewal we need as pursuers of justice. The search helps us confront new problems in new ways and give us the endurance we need to fight the old ones.

The Tav HaYosher comes to Chicago (and a whole bunch of other states)

The certification of kosher restaurants upholding the rights of their workers continues to spread across the country…

Chicago native Shmuly Yanklowitz wants to encourage kosher restaurant owners to think about another dimension to the way they make and serve food. Yanklowitz and the organization he co-founded, Uri L’Tzedek (“awaken to justice” in Hebrew), have full confidence in kashrut boards that examine a restaurant’s compliance with Jewish dietary laws. His main concern is workers’ rights in kosher establishments. The cooks and servers who make the kosher food deserve to have their rights protected, said Yanklowitz, a rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in New York. These rights―fair pay, fair time and a safe work environment―are at the center of the Tav HaYosher (“ethical seal”) program Yanklowitz helped develop.

“Kashrut boards do a phenomenal job making sure that standards are met,” said Rabbi Ari Weiss, Uri L’Tzedek’s executive director. “Our idea is to have a second conversation with restaurant owners—one that focuses on workers’ rights and work conditions. It’s a way to add another dimension to the production of a service we enjoy.”

More here on the expansion to Chicago.

Tav HaYosher blog.

Pesach, Poverty, and The Vilna Gaon

Over the last two nights, millions of Jews across the world recited the maggid, the story of the Jewish people. They began with this declaration:

Ha lachma anya – This is the bread of oppression, that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.
All that are hungry, come and eat.
All that need, let them celebrate Passover.
Today we are here, next year in Israel.
Today we are slaves, next year we shall be free.

In his commentary to the haggadah, the Vilna Gaon takes this section, ha lachma anya, to deliver a discourse on the different types of poverty that exist in the world. Jumping off the word anya, the Gaon writes that there are 4 types of oni, oppressed person, and each is represented in ha lachma anya. In the spirit of understanding and fighting poverty and oppression this Pesach, let’s explore the Gaon’s 4 levels of oni.

1. The oni who does not have food to eat, who cannot sustain his life.  Today, we might call this absolute poverty. He is represented by the words kol difchin (all who are hungry), and our response is to feed him – yetei v’yichol (come and eat).
2. The oni who has food and isn’t in danger of immediate death, but is impoverished and cannot meet her other basic, societal needs. Today, we might call this relative poverty. She is represented by kol dizrich (all who need). Our response is to provide her with what she needs to perform the Passover seder – yitei v’yifsach (come and celebrate Passover).
3. The oni who is oppressed on a journey. Today, we might call this a refugee.  He is represented by hashta hacha (today we are here), and we are to answer by pointing him towards Jerusalem, or wherever his home might be.
4. The oni  who is afflicted by oppressive working conditions. Today, we might call this a migrant worker, a sexually harassed employee, or any worker who is denied her rights to compensation and workplace protections. She is represented by hashata avdei (today we are slaves), and we work towards the next year, when we are all free (bnei chorin).

The depth of the Gra’s thinking about different types of poverty, coupled with his identification of these timeless issues within the classic haggadic text is, to me, inspiring. His work serves as a call to deepen my intellectual engagement with social justice this Passover, and to deepen my commitment to pursuing it this year.

The Vort: Tzav – Transparency, Accountability, and the Priesthood

We are in the thick of an entire set of parshiot dealing almost exclusively with priests. A large amount, especially when we consider the following how the fundamental aspects of Jewish life: sacred time, sacred family relationships, sacred eating, etc, are each given only have a few verses here and there. In total, these fundamental aspects of Jewish life cover a small fraction of the space given to parshiot dealing with the priestly service in the mishkan. Why?

Why is the Torah so fixated on priests? If the Torah is supposed to be a document for the entire Jewish people, why so much detail about the practice of priesthood, something only 1/24 of the population would engage in? I had the honor to hear an answer from Rabbi Saul Berman, who explained it as follows:

To understand the Torah’s lengthy description of the practices our priests, we need to understand what the biblical reference point for priests was: the extremely powerful priests of Egypt. We see this from Genesis 47:20:

“And Yosef made it a law until this day for the land of Egypt to be a fifth part unto Pharoah; only the land of the priests alone was not Pharoahs

The priests were above the law; even Pharoah couldn’t touch them! And what was the source of the Egyptian priests’ power? Death. Egyptian religion was focused on death and attaining afterlife. In order to make it to the afterlife, one had to be guided through the end of this life with the right objects, the right incantations, and have ones body preserved in the right way. These activities, and therefore the passage to the next world, were entirely controlled by the priests.

The potential for corruption is striking: the priests had a monopoly on the afterlife. That left them untouchable, free to use their power in any way they wanted. No accountability, no transparency, total power. Want to get into afterlife? That will be $100,000. Have sex with me. Worship me. Scary stuff.

The Torah is a direct critique to this concentration of power. Jewish priests, as we see in these parshiot, are not only not in control of death and the afterlife, they are forbidden to even come near it! The priestly taboo around death is so that they do not become gatekeepers to the next world, but instead stay focused on this one. Jewish priests are servants and facilitators, to teach and serve and help the Jewish people to “choose life” and grow closer to God.

And what about the secret rites and lack of transparency characteristic of Egyptian priests? The Torah rejects them. That’s why the Torah spends so many chapters detailing the priestly rituals, to create transparency of everything they’re doing. No hidden tricks or secret knowledge. That transparency protects the common person from abuses of religious power.

The Torah’s focus on priesthood is not just some cultic show and tell. There is a profound critique of religious power and control, and a call for literacy and transparency throughout the people. These are fundamental Jewish values. May we be successful in realizing them in our world today.

Preach Rabbi!

This is Rabbi Morris Allen, speaking to the two hundred thousand people gathered to rally for comprehensive immigration reform in America.

Give away your money part 2 – Tithing this Tax Season

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about how we as a community can step up our tzedaka game. After following the fascinating comment thread, with highlights from Shoshana, Avigdor, David A.M. Wilensky, ML, and others, I decided to look into some of the questions about what counts for tzedaka, what doesn’t, how to calculate it, etc. This piece I wrote for Ha’aretz was the result. It focuses on the practice of ma’aser kesafim, tithing one tenth of all income to the poor. Is this a mitzvah that the progressive Jewish community could take on in serious ways?

The Vort: Fall down, Get up. Parashat Vayikra

I’m always falling short. I fall short in my interpersonal relationships, in my avodat hashem (service of God through prayer, mitzvot, mindfulness), in my work trying to repair the world. Not a single evening comes where I can’t look back on the day and realize I could have treated someone better, said a blessing with more appreciation, or fought harder for something I believe in. This falling short is a feeling of distance: distance from my values and ideals, distance from those around me, distance from God.

But I keep going, religiously. For me, one of the most important functions of Judaism is to deal with the reality of these gaps, these distances in our selves. When I fall short, how do I get back to what is good and true in me and in the world? That question is what this week’s parasha, Vayikra is all about.

A surface read of Vayikra might seem to be instructions for a massive bbq – animals, smoke, blood, and fire, but dig a little deeper in the text and there’s a lot more. The parasha is essentially a list of korbanot. What is a korban? It’s commonly mistranslated as sacrifice or offerings but as the Ramban points out in his introduction to the parasha, the word means “drawing close,” from the root k-r-b, to be near. The different korbanot in our parasha are intended to be vehicles to draw close to God.

And when do we feel the strongest need to draw close? After we’ve been distant. The Torah’s word for this distance that I described earlier is: chet. Chet is commonly mistranslated as “sin” but is much closer to the word for missing a shot in basketball, להחטיא. To do a chet means to miss the mark of your potential. I don’t mean this in a fuzzy self-help way, there are times when I’ve missed the mark that have had serious, painful consequences for myself and others. Chet is real, but it’s not the end. It does not have to lead to despair or an abandonment of ideals. You can get back on track.

Religious ritual, whether korbanot, prayer, song, etc. can serve as a bridge from the missteps and missed opportunities of today to how we want to be tomorrow. They force us to confront the things we don’t like in ourselves but at also create the space to move forward. The message of Vayikra is the times we fall short are not excuses to run from our most important values and our relationships. It’s the opposite. Those are the moments when God calls for korban, the moments when we are to draw closest.

Ready for immigration reform? Here’s what you can do.

Jewish Bagel Brunch, Interfaith Service and Immigration Rally

Sunday March 21, 11:00 am – 4pm

If you’re in Washington DC, you can be part of history and help change the future for millions of our immigrant brothers and sisters. Join tens of thousands of people of faith from across the United States for “March for America: Change Takes Courage and Faith.” Register here:

National Jewish Conference Call on Immigration Reform

Sunday March 21, 6pm

Learn about the Jewish imperative to call for immigration reform on a conference call with Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Rabbi David Saperstein (Reform), Rabbi Morris Alan (Conservative) and Rabbi Menachem Genack (Orthodox) and other leaders.

Register Here:

National Lobby / Call In Day

Monday March 22, 9 am – 5 pm

The We Were Strangers Too coalition is helping to organize lobby visits with members of Congress. Please register at the following site if you are able to stay in town:

For individuals who cannot travel to Washington on the 21/22, we need you to call your Members of Congress and advocate for reform. Everyone who registers for the March 21 Jewish conference call will receive an email with the information for the national call-in day on March 22.

Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, Jewish Community Action, and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society are the co-conveners of We Were Strangers Too: the Jewish Campaign for Immigration Reform.

We Were Strangers Too

From the good folks at JCUA (Jewish Council on Urban Affairs):

Just days before Passover, we have a tremendous opportunity to call on Congress to fix our broken immigration system.  As we commemorate that We Were Strangers Too in the land of Egypt, we should take time to reflect on how strangers in the U.S. today are treated.  Think of these as the “plagues” of our current immigration system:

1. Keeping Families Apart: The current system keeps families apart. Mothers, fathers, sons and daughters are separated with no means of contacting one another during the detention process. Others have to wait as long as 22 years to be reunited with immediate family members who have been granted legal status. More »

The Vort – Lose Yourself: Parashat Vayakhel

Do you know this feeling?

“I felt, as the group passed over its metaphorical clif, that I had literally become weightless. I had abandoned gravity, was greater than it. I felt myself to be hovering above myself, capable of perceiving everything in slow motion and overwhelming detail.”

Pretty cool. It’s from “Among the Thugs,” sociologist Bill Buford’s book about the time he spent running with soccer hooligans in the UK. It could also describe experiences at Burning Man, an intense melavah malkah in Jerusalem, or a political rally: all gatherings of people striving to reach something beyond themselves.

The first verse of this week’s parasha, Vayakhel also describes a collective gathering:

וַיַּקְהֵל מֹשֶׁה, אֶת-כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל – “And Moshe gathered the whole congregation of Bnei Yisrael (Shemot, 35:1)”

This spiritual gathering of the people in our parasha this week is for a specific purpose: to join and perform the physical and spiritual work of building the mishkan. Through adding their personal contributions to the efforts of the collective, the Jewish people were able to build something they never could as individuals: a dwelling place for God. Those who have been a part of meaningful service on behalf of a good and just cause  know the intense feelings, meaning and power that come as a result of doing the work in a large group. It can be a real high.

But there is an extra significance to this week’s gathering. More »