Dr. Spitzer admitted he was wrong and apologized. How about Rabbis Levy, Mackler, Wise, Weiss, Frydman-Kohl, and Roth?

The NY Times recently published an article about an unusual public apology by Dr. Robert L. Spitzer, a prominent psychiatrist. In the early 1970’s, Dr. Spitzer was instrumental in the American Psychological Association’s decision to stop classifying homosexuality as a mental disorder. Much later in his career, he interviewed individuals who were undergoing reparative therapy intended to change their sexual orientation, and published a 2003 article concluding that reparative therapy could change sexual attraction in individuals who were highly motivated to change. Although this article was published in a peer reviewed journal, due to his prestige, instead of actually undergoing peer review, the article was published without review alongside commentaries critical of his methodology and his interpretation of the evidence presented. Spitzer has come to agree with the critics of this work, publicly declared that his conclusions were wrong–giving detailed explanations of why these conclusions were wrong, and apologized to those who underwent reparative therapy based on the prestige and credibility he lent to such treatments. You can read more about this in The NY Times article.

So what does this have to do with Judaism? In 2006, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) of the Conservative Movement voted on several respona regarding homosexuality and Judaism. Much was written at the time about the fact that conflicting respona each received sufficient votes to be considered acceptable interpretations of halacha. The Dorff, Nevins, and Reisner Responum narrowed prohibited behaviors sufficiently to open a path to homosexual Jewish marriage and ordination. Two others, the Roth Responsum, and the Levy Responsum, concluded instead that homosexual Jewish marriage and ordination were not compatible with halacha. The Levy Responsum uniquely claimed that reparative therapy to change sexual orientation could be effective, explicitly suggested such therapy as an option for adults unable to have opposite-sex relationships, and also implied that such therapy should be suggested to teenagers.
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Read this Book

I could probably just about build a raft and sail around the world with all the books advocating for Jewish Social Justice that have come out in the last couple of years. Several of them are very good. I particularly like Rabbi Jill Jacobs’ first book, which is both thorough and excellent.
But I want to recommend a book that’s a little bit different.

Rabbi Shmuly Yankelowitz, the founder of the Orthodox social justice movement Uri L’Tzedek, has just come out with a book very simply titled Jewish Ethics and Social Justice (Derusha Publishing). Unlike most of the the other books in this burgeoning genre, Rabbi Y’s book is a collection of essays previously published in newspapers journals and blogs. This is both a strength and a weakness, which I will touch on later. More »

Birth control is NOT like pork chops

Feministe has a round-up on the recent squabbling about whether or not religious organizations that don’t approve of birth control should have to have health plans cover it.
Aside from the misogyny and offensive attitudes on display in general, let us analyze the statement made by a few people that requiring such organizations to require it would be like serving bacon at a Jewish barbeque. Well, let’s see: suppose someone attending the barbeque had a life-threatening illness that required them to eat pork. And supposing that person had to attend the barbeque and to eat while there. Well, now, I suppose they’d just fire up a separate grill upwind, since under those circumstances, Jewish law requires them to eat it. And if they weren’t Jewish? All the more so.
Now, shut up.

Standardizing gay friendly & egalitarian marriage rituals

The Forward just published Conservatives Grapple With Gay Wedding Rite. In an effort to create a typical news article conflict, it misses the bigger picture. Three Conservative rabbis were tasked to create a standard ritual for gay weddings. They tried to hew as closely as possible to the typical non-egalitarian ceremony with the goal of minimizing the differences between homo and heterosexual marriage rituals. While a valiant goal, many of the top decision makers in the Conservative movement (the other members of the Committee on Jewish Laws & Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly), thought the text didn’t work and asked the drafting group to make more radical changes to the text with the goal of a more egalitarian ritual. The only critique in the article that wasn’t from a Conservative rabbi is a quote from Jay Michaelson. I read a comment of Michaelson on Facebook where he said he was more supportive of this effort than his quote that ended up in the Forward article portrayed.

The draft text and suggested revisions are not publicly available so I can’t directly critique them. Still, we can discuss why this effort matters.

There are some great examples of couples doing intense study to create their own ceremonies. BZ has a great series on this. More and more resources are out there. For example, there is Danya’s Alternatives to Kiddusin.

There are still unnecessary barriers for people who want to use these rituals. Here’s the example from my heterosexual wedding (predating both BZ’s and Danya’s writings). We used a non-standard & more egalitarian Ketubah text. While the text was available, we couldn’t walk into most Judaica stores & buy an beautiful ketubah with this text pre-printed. We wouldn’t have even known this text existed if we didn’t have friends who adapted it for their own wedding. To use the text, we needed to contact the author, a total stranger named Aryeh Cohen, to get an electronic version of the text that the ketubah scribe could lay out and then hand inscribe. Even this modest change to a more egalitarian ketubah text required added effort and additional costs. Our discussions regarding variations on the ceremony didn’t go much beyond rings, who walks around who, and whether the object of value should be a ring or a banana.

While finding a wider range of rituals is slightly easier now, egalitarian hetero or homosexual wedding rituals that are rooted in Jewish history and tradition are still an elite decision for those who decide the extra work is worth it.

Conservative Rabbis and other Conservative leaders have long officiated at weddings using a variety of rituals. Some were performing gay commitment ceremonies or weddings before the Committee on Jewish Law & Standards (CJLS) said it was ok and more have done so afterwards. Still, officiants are all piecing together new ritual based on the work of others and their own research and innovations.

Perhaps someone else will correct me, but I think this is the first attempt by a major Jewish organization to create a single, standardized ritual for homosexual weddings. Standardized ritual can remove barriers. A CJLS approved ketubah text for gay weddings will be pre-printed in beautiful ketobot by more suppliers with non-fancy verisions sitting in more synagogue rabbis’ cabinets. New wedding rituals will be in Rabbis’ manuals next to guidance for other lifecycle events. If the new rituals end up being firmly anchored in Jewish texts and traditions, egalitarian, and flexibly gendered, they will see usage in heterosexual weddings whether or not that was the CJLS intention.

While standardization can sometimes decrease innovation, I think it is the opposite in this case. People who want to innovate wedding rituals will still do that. A new standard text just shifts the starting point, with an easily found and hopefully well documented and researched text.

Kaddish as Folk Religion

Scholars of religion have a term for the common practice of adherents to a religious tradition that do not always perfectly fit into the doctrinal teachings of that religion — folk religion. This is in contrast to the normative doctrinal teachings of a religion often dubbed “state religion.” This is most often noted in Jewish history as the drive by the ancient Jewish monarchy of the 6th century BCE to centralize worship in Jerusalem with an organized Temple worship and priesthood. The ‘folk religion’ of the time, however, preferred a sort of blending of local pagan customs and the normative priestly cult. If people were not worshiping idols or eating non-kosher food there would have been no need for the Torah to repeatedly warn against worshiping idols or eating non-kosher food. It’s as the old adage goes, society does not develop laws people are already following.

Since becoming an ordained rabbi, I have rarely been faced with needing to fulfill the role of mar d’atra (Aramaic for, literally, “master of the place”). In that role a rabbi acts as a posek (Hebrew for, literally, “arbiter”) and makes halakhic decisions for her or his community. However there is one topic about which I have been asked repeatedly by numerous people in my congregation — Mourners’ Kaddish. To contextualize this, let me say a few words about my congregation.

The average age in my community is probably around 65-70. I have regular attendees who are in their 90s and older. Needless to say, it is an aging congregation. To give you an idea, I recently buried three people in one week. My congregation is made up of many transplants — people who moved to this community from somewhere else. However, many of my congregants are 4th or 5th generation in this community. That being the case, almost everybody who is actually born and raised in this community is related to everybody else even if just as distant cousins. Even though halakhah dictates that people only say Kaddish for one one of the seven relatives whom they must mourn for — parents, children, siblings and spouses — people in my community will often come to shul to say Kaddish for their grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Kaddish has become so important in this community that during daily prayer services the names of those who left the world that day throughout the 120+ year history of the synagogue are read aloud and if someone knows who the person was and their story, that story is shared. On Shabbat, the names of those for the entire coming week are read aloud. Most days, although we try, we do not make a minyan — unless someone is observing a yahrzeit. Kaddish is truly the ‘folk religion’ of this little community. More »

Halakha and Beyond: A Response to Rabbi Gil Student

This is a guest post by Rabbi Shai Held, who is Co-Founder, Rosh Yeshiva, and Chair in Jewish Thought at Mechon Hadar. Here, he responds to a post on Hirhurim that reviewed the anthology Jewish Theology in Our Time, including R. Held’s essay “Living and Dreaming with God”. Jewschool is proud to host this conversation, as we hosted parts of the Green/Landes debate a few months ago.

In dismissing the essays collected in Elliot Cosgrove’s Jewish Theology in Our Time, Gil Student attacks my essay in particular, “Living and Dreaming with God,” as purportedly lacking in traditional content. He implies that I am at once ignorant of, and indifferent to, traditional Jewish theological sources. But his treatment of my essay only reveals his own confusions and his indulgence in ungenerous, caricatured readings.
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Half Shabbos txt

Jewish Week reports on the growing phenomenon of Modern Orthodox teens keeping ‘Half Shabbos’ and texting on Shabbat both in private and also in full view of peers and event adults.

Some observers describe teens as experimenting with the limits of sanctioned and non-sanctioned actions in a Jewish version of the Rumspringa practice in which Amish 16-year-olds are free to engage in banned behavior before formally affiliating with the church and abiding by their community’s norms of behavior.

The article does note that the phase seems to end when many teens return from gap year in Israel when they frum out. I guess between episodes of getting blotto and into trouble, they wander into the wrong neighborhood on Shabbos, texting blithely away and get violently assault. Welcome to Mea Shearim… Frum satire also fisks…

Glenn Beck apologizes (sorta) but I’m not impressed.

After the ADL gets pissy with him Glenn Beck apologizes (sorta) for his rude comparison of Reform Jews to Islamic extremists but I have to say — I’m not impressed.

First of all, let’s just set aside for a moment the ridiculousness of mentioning Islamic extremists in every other breath – really, I have to say (I never thought I’d defend Beck in any way whatsoever) that really, his comments weren’t about Reform Jews being terrorists. While his comments were completely inane, his point was that Reform Jews are primarily a political organization rather than a religious one. How many ways this is a stupid comment leaves me gasping, but it’s not what most people seem to have taken it as – i.e. a claim that Reform Jews are terrorists.

However, the level of stupidity remains pretty high: More »

Pardes/Hebrew College Theology Throwdown

(Full disclosure – I’m currently a student in a joint Pardes/Hebrew College MA program)

So, R’ Daniel Landes, Pardes Rosh Yeshiva, published this review of R’ Art Green’s new book, Radical Judaism. I’m not going to excerpt it, because you should just go read the whole thing.

Here’s a leaked response from R’ Green:

To the editor:

Rabbi Daniel Landes’ da’ mah she-tashiv (“Know what to answer the heretic”) approach to my Radical Judaism, protecting innocents from “the dangers lurking in the rhetoric that Green and like-minded thinkers employ,” represents a theological bankruptcy lurking in traditional Jewish circles. The forces of religion fought two great battles in the twentieth century, one against evolution and the other, taken more seriously by Jews, against Biblical criticism. It lost them both, quite decisively. These defeats, plus the Holocaust, are real parts of the baggage that any intellectually honest Jewish theology must confront. My book is an attempt to create a viable Judaism in the face of those realities. Landes may choose to live in a closed circle that pretends these uncomfortable facts do not exist, continuing to play by the old theological rules. For Jews living outside those circles, such an approach does not work. He should know; many of his students are among them. More »

Rescind the Ban?

Alright, I know I’m kinda behind, as this is last week’s (month’s really) news, but it’s the season of forgiveness, okay?
Over the past month, there’s a been a lot of discussion of intermarriage in the wake (Is that a pun? Sorta) of the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding. One article that caught my eye is the piece in the Forward last week by Conservative Rabbi Jason Miller,urging the Rabbinical Assembly to rescind the ban on Conservative rabbis participating in or attending intermarriages (of Jews to non-Jews anyhow. I don’t think other pairings are found disturbing).

In theory, violating this ban can have a rabbi expelled from the RA, although in practice, as Miller points out, attendance at interfaith weddings has not – as far as I or he or anyone I’ve queried, knows- actually resulted in said expulsion. I can’t say that I agree with Rabbi Miller, although I have mixed feelings about it: since in fact, there is no consequence for for violating the attendance part of the ban, rabbis who need to go because it is their child or a close family member, can actually attend, while preserving other rabbis’ ability to say that ultimately, intermarriage is not something that they are able to celebrate, if that is their bent, and having the movement stand behind them, which given the ostensible principles of the movement, seems reasonable to expect.

Rabbi Miller seems to view the refusal to attend interfaith weddings as tribalism, rather than as a more complex problem. I suppose in the case where the Jewish member of the couple is Jewish in name only, and doens’t view Judaism as important at all, then tribalism might be a fair description, but for a rabbi in the Conservative movement, who at least in theory views Judaism as having a divine component, and Jews (as a people) as having a particular and holy mission, that strikes me as an unfair description.

In some respects, I view this as a variant of the same discussion that happens about the driving tshuvah. Jews on the more observant end may point out that it was a mistake to allow it, as those who were going to drive would drive anyhow, while the tshuvah givies the appearance that driving is okay to everyone else, halachicly speaking (the problem with the tshuvah appears most especially to be two things: 1. the people who wrote it had only the sketchiest idea of the inner workings of an engine, and 2. there was a deliberate stretching of the way halachah works , in honesty, beyond the breaking point: claiming that the spark of the spark plug is a sort of unintended side effect of the driving is sort of like claiming that the heat on a stove is an unintended side effect of cooking the food) while in fact, it isn’t really, and even the tshuvah sort of admits it. Instead the better solution might have been to simply not address the issue, nor castigate those who chose to drive, and welcome them as one would anyone else, simply not taking note of the matter. However, once the tshuvah is published, it’s very difficult – I would say impossible- to reverse it to that situation, since any change away from a complete acceptance then appears to be a rejection of the people who drive.

Am I advocating hypocrisy? I suppose so. I think that in this case Miss Manners would approve (Miss Martin, if you should happen to read Jewschool please feel free to weigh in). Perhaps I can argue that mipnei darkei shalom, hypocrisy might be our best alternative?

Interested in other peoples’ thoughts on this.

Rethinking ‘stam yeinam’

My pregnant wife sitting at home, I stood in the grocery store aisle with two bottles of grape juice in my hand–in the one hand I had the bottle of Kedem grape juice (I usually buy the organic, but they were all out) and in the other hand, a bottle of organic Santa Cruz 100% Concord Grape juice. I didn’t know what to do. My wife and I are dedicated to maintaining an organic diet. Some consumers choose organic products only when available; we choose to ONLY purchase organic products, if there’s not an organic option, we don’t get it. But here it was, Friday afternoon, too late to run around to more stores to look for organic juice that had a hekhsher. What to do… Can I, a soon to be rabbi ordained by the Conservative Movement, say kiddush on juice without a hekhsher? It’s not something I had ever done before… would I be willing to start? I was.

Unlike some, I have read and learned quite a bit about stam yeinam. Literally meaning ‘their wine,’ it refers to the practice of maintaining that when it comes to grape products, only Jewish hands may be a part of the production from start to finish. Dating back to Talmudic times, this practice was solidified, codified and reinforced by the work of the Tosafot (Franco-German medieval Talmudic commentators specifically interested in halakhic legal theory). In theory, the practice has two reasons, as far as my research has shown me. 1) There was the fear that wine purchased for kiddush could have been used or dedicated for avodah zarah (idol worship), and 2) that in certain areas blood was used as a purifier (the salts would act to separate out impurities in the wine). So today, in 2010, when there is no more avodah zarah as it was meant by the Talmud and there is hardly a winery in the world that would use blood as a purifier, what do we do with this tradition? (Hebrew readers who are interested in this topic should DEFINITELY check out Hayim Soloveitchik’s book on the topic titled “יינם”)
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Towing the Mehitza Line at Dan and Ris’ Wedding

This is a guest post by Rebez. For reasons of privacy, names of participants have been left out.

Even before the dancing began, one could sense this wedding was going to push boundaries.  The seating arrangement for the huppah was a tri-chitza.  Looking out from the huppah, on the right was a small woman’s section, on the left was a men’s section, and in the middle with 80% of the participants was mixed seating.  No signs for the different sections, just implicit understanding.  It was assumed that you would know which section you belonged in.  And dividing each of the three sections was a looming thick movable wall also known as the mehitza.

I’ve never seen this mechitza’s equal. The mehitza was a solid structure of four metal bars with a connecting crossbar and a piece of colored hanging plexiglass that was both opaque at eye level and translucent everywhere else.   The metal bars were shaped like a swing-set with the glass divider hanging down as the swing. Approximately 10 feet long and 9 feet high.  An intimidating presence.

By the time the dancing began, the room was transformed from a tri-chitza huppah space to a dance hall with one barrier in the middle.  As soon as the Chattan and Kallah were introduced and the dancing ensued, they parted ways to opposite sides.  The separate dancing began.

There are many ways to create intentional separated dancing space at a simcha.  You can have a physical barrier.  You can also have no barrier and still have separate dancing.   You can have a tri-chitza.  And then you can do what this wedding did, although I’m not sure something like this can be planned. More »

More on Orthodoxy and women. Is it news?

NEWS ITEM: In a special news report published online by the NEW YORK JEWISH WEEK, a woman was designated by Rabbi Avraham Weiss to lead Kabbalat Shabbat services on Friday night, July 30, for the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, an Orthodox Union synagogue.

The article goes on to say

In the past year, there has unfolded within American Modern Orthodox Judaism the first major evidences of a pending theological schism, as a small but media-savvy minority of rabbinic activists from the YCT/ IRF camp have begun pushing the MO envelope farther to the Left than mainstream Modern Orthodoxy ever contemplated. At the center of the impending schism is Rabbi Avi Weiss. He is charismatic and dynamic, rabbi of a shul with a large membership where he can introduce any innovation he desires, and he has a rabbinical seminary and rabbinical association in place to give his agenda the aura of a legitimate “movement.” Although Young Israel synagogues do not readily accept YCT graduates as congregational rabbis and the 900-member RCA does not regard YCT ordination as carrying the legitimacy of a RIETS Semikha, Rabbi Weiss has decided that he no longer needs communal approbation to venture on his own because he has the minions.
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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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Kosher law in Georgia

Last week, Georgia Gov. Sunny Perdue signed into law House Bill 1345, which fixed the Kosher Food Labeling Act (KFLA) of Georgia, which required that any food sold as kosher had to meet the guidelines of the “Orthodox Hebrew religious rules and requirements.” This law was ruled unconstitutional because it had the government mandating whose standards qualified as acceptably kosher – not a good position for our government to find itself in, and mirrored a similar problem found in New York’s Kosher Law Protection act of 2004. Apparently this problem was later fixed, as New York adopted a law that set them on the same path that Georgia is now treading .

The new law in Georgia requires rather that consumers are informed about the standards under which any kosher food product was certified. I will be interested to see if Georgia can do well imitate New York didn’t‘s path in a matter regarding religion. I’m not really sure how helpful all this will be to the kosher consumer, but I suppose that I would be pleased to know the standards set by any given hashgacha. I wonder, though, if it will really help solve the “this rabbi is rumored to never show up and check” problem

Monday was Yom Ha’Atzma’ut…

Mar Gavriel tells us:

Most of the world is observing Yom Ha’Atzma’ut on Tuesday, because Yom HaZikaron is the day before Yom Ha’Atzma’ut and when Yom HaZikaron is due to be on a Sunday we push the whole lot up a day – Yom HaZikaron on Monday and Yom Ha’Atzma’ut on Tuesday – so as not to encourage people to drive to the memorials when it is still Shabbat.

Consideration 1: According to Rav Hershel Schachter (top bod at Yeshiva University), halakhic Yom Ha’Atzma’ut can never fall on any date other than 5 Iyyar, because that is the actual date on which the miraculous event occurred. So no pushing it off to Tuesday – if 5 Iyyar is a Monday, Yom Ha’Atzma’ut is a Monday, end of story.

Consideration 2: But this Monday was Ta‘anit Behab. Almost no one today still fasts, but a number of communities still recite the associated Selichot.

So — on Monday, the main YU Beis Medresh minyan recited Selichot AND Hallel. Not something one generally sees.

The Vort: Tazria & Metzora – Not a Question of If, But When

Upon setting out to write this dvar Torah, I had grand visions of talking about the halakhic status of coed toilets. If a woman is ritually unclean, how can other members of her family use the same toilet, for example?

There was going to be a blow-out Foucauldian analysis of the halakhic sources, followed by a lengthy exegesis on Melanie Klein’s partial object; Kohut’s narcissistic transference, and Freud’s paranoia “syllogism” as taken up by Lacan. And then the ground-breaking revelation that we have been/are currently/always will be sinning.

It was going to be fabulous.

Perhaps fortunately for you, Masechet Niddah, Masechet Khullin,  and Masechet Keilim (11:2) took me to school. Once again. We can use the same toilet as someone who is ritually unclean because the toilet is “מחובר לקרקע” (it is connected to the ground)—this is the loophole. (For those following at home, this is the same term used in reference to mikvaot, or ritual bath pools.)  Furthermore, I learned that in our times–i.e. post-Temple times–we are all tamei met already, and thus this is a non-issue.

Now that we’re all breathing comfortably…

I will tell you, instead, about how I first learned about sex. (What does this have to do with tazria metzorah, you ask? Just wait. You’ll see.) More »

Are Those Immodest Catholics, Muslims, and Jews?

This weekend, Pope Benedict XVI voiced concern over the use of those creepy full body scanners at airports. He’s against them, saying “the primary asset to be safeguarded and treasured is the person, in his or her integrity.” body scanThe Pope continued:

Respect for the principles he enunciated “might seem particularly complex and difficult in the present context”, he told his audience, which included airport managers, airline executives, security workers, pilots, cabin and ground staff.

They had to contend with problems arising “from the economic crisis, which is bringing about problematic effects in the civil aviation sector, and the threat of international terrorism, which is targeting airports and aircraft”. But, he warned: “It is essential never to lose sight of respect for the primacy of the person.”

The pope’s words will delight civil liberties campaigners opposed to a device that strips passengers virtually naked.

He’s only a few weeks behind various Islamic authorities, who have come out against the scanners. Fiqh Council of North America issued a fatwah statement as passing through the scanners would violate Islamic rules of modesty.

And the Jews? There seems to be (shocking, I know), differing opinions. The Rabbinical Center of Europe (an umbrella organisation for Orthodox communities) has declared the scanners to be immodest, but allowed. Part of their issue is that men should review images of men, women those of women. They were assured that images are reviewed by computer software, and humans are only involved if something is found. But this isn’t accurate. We know from many reports that the images aren’t written over or erased, that security staff are looking at images. So will rabbis in Europe reconsider? What about in North America?