Tuesday, February 27, 2007

A Letter To The Pope

Many years ago I was a member of an interreligious affairs committee and believed that through dialogue, respect and understanding could be achieved. I had the good fortune to work with outstanding national leaders on matters concerning our people and future. Over the years I grew cynical about the ability to achieve the respect and parity within the Christian community. However, most disappointing was the Catholic Church which maintained an imperious, sanctimonious and judgmental posture towards the Jewish people in spite of all the years of dialogue. I could no longer understand the Jewish preoccupation bordering on obsessive, with courting the Vatican. Why concern ourselves with what the Vatican thinks about Israel and the Jews. Certainly there is a shadow hanging over the Vatican regarding their conduct and role and perhaps complicity in the destruction of European Jewry during World War II. They have about as much credibility as the U.N.

Recently, however, the current Pope, Pope Benedict has denounced Israel. On Friday, July 14, Cardinal Angela Sodano said Pope Benedict worried that developments in the Middle East would degenerate into a “conflict with international repercussions”. Most disturbing was when he continued to say “The right of defense on the part of the state does not exempt it from its responsibility to respect international law, particularly regarding the safeguarding of civilian populations”. While it shouldn’t matter to me what the pope thinks or says, in this case it does –it does because his point of criticism goes to the very heart of our existence as a free and independent people. Israel’s decision to take military action wasn’t arrived at easily as evidenced by their restraint, but based upon our right to survive freely as a people. The Jewish people share an ethic which demands of us to choose life above all else (except for three situations). Life to us is creativity, productivity and love-love of family and humanity. The radical Muslim ethic celebrates another ethic-an ethic of death and destruction which poses an existential threat to Israel. These two opposing ethics are irreconcilable. Our right to strike back at the enemy with deadly force isn’t a whimsical decision, but based upon a system of Jewish Ethics rooted in Jewish texts. Undoubtedly the Pope isn’t familiar with our body of Jewish ethics, so I’d like to take this opportunity and enlighten him.

Judaism has a strong ethic against killing and is based upon the concept of imago Dei. We aren’t allowed to murder or kill humans if it’s unjustified, because we are all created in the image of God. The story of Cain killing Abel carries a powerful message of God’s disapproval with murder. Our Midrash tells us that the Great Flood was a result of an evil world of murder and rape. However, as far back as the story of Abraham defeating the raiders from Mesopotamia and taking Lot hostage alters this picture and qualifies the message. Even while the defeated were fleeing, Abram relentlessly pursued them “until Hobah” (Genesis 14:15). Abram emerges as the model fighter: save the innocent and destroy the enemy. Does this sound familiar, Pope Benedict? Our soldiers, as Lot were kidnapped and as with Abram, it is incumbent upon us to return them to us. It isn’t by accident that the first time in the Bible the word “Hebrew” is used to describe Abram and his cohorts is in this story, Melchizedek blesses Abram for his victory, God, in the following chapter also does so. His blessing comes in the way of adding to Abram’s name the letter “H”, representing God in Abraham’s life.

There are other instances in the Bible where violence is condoned. Moses’ earlier life has incidents of violence and killing which if not condoned in the Bible are certainly not condemned: In the story of young Moses when he kills an Egyptian in defense of the Hebrew slave being beaten and after he leaves Egypt, he comes to the rescue of the seven Medianite daughters being threatened and abused by shepherds and violence is incurred.

The Exodus story carries an interesting, implied message, with regarding the use of deadly force. In Exodus 13:18 the Hebrews are described as armed when they left Egypt. Commentaries say that the point being made in the text was that when the Hebrews left Egypt they weren’t fleeing but departed in a para military formation. According to Rabeinu Bachya, a 14th century author and Ethicist, the Exodus story illustrates the appropriate Jewish attitude towards weapons: people must use every practical option, when threatened existentially, including self defense.

Evidence of Rabbeinu Bachya’s position is found again , Pope Benedict, in the Bible, when in the dessert the Hebrews were attacked by the Amalekites, a tribe of desert bandits, killing the weak and the stragglers (Deuteronomy 25:17-18). During the Battle, Moses stood atop a hill with his arm outstretched. As long as his arm was up we would prevail,but when his arm came down as a result of fatigue Amalek would prevail. Apparently, the message here is that there would always be enmity between Amalek and Israel. The Ethic of self defense comes into sharp focus with this chapter of our history. We are commanded to eradicate the enemy. Because we are under attack and our existence is threatened we are commanded by the Bible to strike back with deadly force. This isn’t presented to us as an option-it’s a commandment (Deuteronomy 25:19). The message Pope Benedict, for those who believe in the Bible is clear. It isn’t relevant whether or not Amalek is alive or can be identified by DNA as to whether this commandment is any longer valid. The point is that in principle, the Bible understood that force is necessary when it comes to defending oneself for survival of the individual or state.

This is reinforced in the Bible (Exodus 22:2) when the homeowner is absolved if he kills a burglar. Rashi clarifies this by saying that if it is clear that no bodily harm to the homeowner is intended than there is no excuse for killing the burglar. The Rambam disagrees however, in Hilchot Gineiva, Mishna Torah, and believes that the rationale for killing the burglar is the presumption of danger. If he tries to stop the burglar without force, than the burglar will try to kill the homeowner. Therefore, while he is only a thief he is considered a “rodef-pursuer seeking to kill”, and as such can use deadly force. Pichuach Nefesh also comes into the equation. Failure to use deadly force would be in violation of Pichuach Nefesh if you were under threat. Philo, a Jewish Scholar in Alexandria (20BC-50AD) argued that Mosaic Law conformed to Roman law, which viewed all forms of theft as an attack on society: a petty thief in principle was no different from a tyrant who stole the resources of his nation, or a nation plundering another nation. Pope Benedict does this sound familiar. What about the kidnapping of three soldiers?

The Talmud TB Sanhedrin 72a sums it up succinctly when it ruled: “Im Ba L’hargecha, Hashkem Laharog” If someone attempts to kill you, forestall and strike first. It is an act of self defense. There is no discretion here. It is a positive commandment and tempering and modifying the commandment to eradicate Amalek. It isn’t necessary to liquidate the enemy if you aren’t under threat. King Saul exercised this discretion even though he was severely criticized by Samuel.

Pope Benedict, our tradition doesn’t teach us to turn the other cheek. Don’t apply Christian standards to the Jewish People. It is patronizing and condescending. Our tradition teaches us the ethics of self defense and that our survival and freedom trumps, at all cost, the enemy’s will to prevail.

A Letter To The World From Jerusalem

Shortly after the Six Day war in June 1967, this Letter written by Eliezer Whartman was published in the Wall Street Journal. It seems appropriate to share it with you, in view of the current conflict and the reaction by so many of our world leaders, religious leaders, left wing press and Yefei Nefesh.

A letter to the World from Jerusalem
Eliezer ben Israel

I am not a creature from another planet, as you seem to believe.
I am a Jerusalemite- like yourselves, a man of flesh and blood.
I am a citizen f my city and integral part of my people.

I have a few things to get of my chest. Because I am not a diplomat, I do not have to mince words. I do not have to please you, or even persuade you.
I owe you nothing. You did not build this city; You do not live in it; you did not defend it when they came to destroy it. And we will be dammed if we will let you take it away.

There was a Jerusalem before there was a New York. When Berlin , Moscow , London and Paris were miasmal forest and swamp, there was thriving Jewish community here. It gave something to the world which you nations have rejected ever since you established yourselves – a human moral code.

Here the prophets walked, their words flashing like forked lightening. Here a people who wanted nothing more than to be left alone, fought off waves of heathen would – be conquerors, bled and died on the battlements, hurled themselves into the flames of their burning temple rather then surrender; and when finally overwhelmed by sheer numbers and led away into captivity, swore that before they forgot Jerusalem they would see their tongues cleave to their palates, their right arm wither.

Foe two pain filled millennia, while we were your unwelcome guests, we prayed daily to return to this city. Three times a day we petitioned the almighty: “ gather us from the four corners of the world, bring us upright to our land; return in mercy to Jerusalem, Thy city and dwell in it as Thou promised.”

On every Yom Kippur and Passover we fervently voiced the hope that next year would find us in Jerusalem. Your inquisitions, pogroms, expulsions, the ghettos in to which you jammed us, your forced baptisms, your quota systems, your genteel anti-Semitism, and the final unspeakable horror, the holocaust ( and worse, your terrifying disinterest in it ) all these have not broken us. They may have sapped what little moral strength you still possessed but they forged us into steel. Do you think that you can break us now, after all we have been through? Do you really believe that after Dachau
and Auschwitz we are frightened by you threats of blockades and sanctions?
We have been to hell and back – a hell of your making. What more could you possibly have in you arsenal that could scare us?

I have watched the city bombarded twice. By nations calling themselves civilized. In 1948 , while you looked on apathetically, I saw women and children blown to smithereens, this after we had agreed to request to internationalize the city. It was a deadly combination that did the job:
British officers, Arab gunners and American made cannons.

And then the savage sacking of the old city: The willful slaughter, the wonton destruction of every synagogue and religious school; the desecration of Jewish cemeteries; the sale by a ghoulish government of tomb stones for building materials, for poultry runs, army camps – even latrines.

And you never said a word.

You never breathed the slightest protest when the Jordanians shut off the holiest of our holy places, the western wall in violation of the pledges they had made after the war – a war they waged, incidentally against the decision of the UN. Not a murmur came from you whenever the legionnaires, in their spiked helmets casually opened fire upon our citizens from behind the walls.

Your hearts bled when Berlin came under siege. You rushed your airlift “ to save the gallant Berliners. “ But you did not send one ounce of food when Jews starved in besieged Jerusalem. You thundered against the wall which the east Germans ran through the middle of the German capital - but not one peep out of you about the other wall, the one that tore through the heart of Jerusalem.

And when the same thing happened twenty years later, and the Arabs unleashed a savage unprovoked bombardment of the holy city again, did any of you do anything? The only time you came to life was when the city was at last reunited. Then you wrung your hands and spoke loftily of “ justice” and the need for the “Christian” quality of turning the other cheek.

The truth is – and you know it deep inside your gut – you would prefer the city to be destroyed rather than have it governed by Jews. No matter how diplomatically you phrase it, the age old prejudices seep out of every word.

If our return to the city has tied you theology in knots, perhaps you would better reexamine your catechisms. After what we have been through, we are not passively going to accommodate ourselves to the twisted idea that we are to suffer eternal homelessness until we accept your Savior.

For the first time since the year seventy there is now complete religious freedom for all in Jerusalem. For the first time since the Romans put the torch to the temple every one has equal rights. (you preferred to have some more equal then others) We loath the sword – but it was you who forced us to take it up. We crave peace – but we are not going back to the peace of 1948 as you would like us to.

We are home. It has a lovely sound for a nation you have willed to wander
over the face of the globe. We are not leaving. We have redeemed the pledge
made by our forefathers – Jerusalem is being rebuilt. “ Next year “ – and the year after, and after, and after, until the end of time “ in Jerusalem!”

Atlas Shrugged Tikkun Olam

Tikkun Olam, in its authentic, Lurianic Kabbalistic version refers to an introspective approach and methodology by which an intense relationship between man and God is forged, mitzvoth realized and slowly but meticulously, the world self corrects. Michael Lerner’s fabrication and fictional version of Tikkun Olam has no basis in Jewish thought. Judaism never adhered to, nor advocated, the social or economic system reflected in his vision of an advanced and sophisticate Western Civilization.

If any economic system is advocated in our tradition it is capitalism. The laws in Leviticus outlining society’s economic and social obligations to the underprivileged underscores a system of private ownership and private enterprise. One only has to view some of the laws outlined in Leviticus 19, Deuteronomy 26:12, Deuteronomy 19:28-29, Deuteronomy 24:19-22 to appreciate this. Many of our prophets, including one of the greatest advocates of the oppressed, Amos, recognized the private enterprise system as valid, if only muted by self control over greed and exploitation of the weakest. They never advocated overthrowing the existing system, but tempering it. A system was in place and in their eyes it was graced by God.

In the Bible and later in prophets, the struggle in resolving the gap between rich and poor isn’t through Tikkun Olam, but Tzedakah. Tzedakah, a fundamental in Biblical and prophetic literature validates the capitalistic system of private enterprise. A distinction is made by our Rabbis between Tzedakah and charity for the poor. Charity is an optional but benevolent gesture towards the underprivileged; Tzedakah is a commandment. We are directed to give Tzedakah and this isn’t subject to our mood or benevolent whim of the moment. The commandment of Tzedakah doesn’t assume a greater agenda of an economic reordering of society or the redistribution of wealth. On the contrary, our tradition is rich with a plethora of examples where the wealthy are extolled as blessed by God. Our Temples were adorned by gold and silver, provided by the faithful, and the entire priestly service underlines majestic imagery only supported by a wealthy community. Even the blessings and cursings of the Bible as evidenced by the Tocheca enhance this idea. The second paragraph of the Shema (Deuteronomy 11:13-21) which faithful Jews recite daily underscores this vision of a prosperous economy if only we adhere to God’s word.

Furthermore, many of the stories in the Bible which we revere, place an inordinate amount of credit to wealth. Abraham is lauded for developing his wealth which placed him in a powerful position when offering Lot a choice piece of real estate. Jacob’s self esteem is enhanced as a result of his vast holdings of live stock and property, and uses his position of wealth when it comes time to face off with his brother and nemesis, Esau. In both cases, it is wealth that provides Abraham and Jacob the ability to successfully negotiate deals that hold promise for the future. The Torah supports private ownership to the point hat the Talmudic sages endorsed the Prozbol.

The Jewish value system does place a premium on private property and intensely believes in the ingenuity of man and utilization of his capital to succeed. While Judaism doesn’t support Ayn Rand’s vision of the world, the Mishna in Avot doesn’t negate that approach. “What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours” is in the estimation of the sages a mediocre man-he will respect the law, but not help others. Translation: Our tradition epitomizes ownership of private property and free enterprise, but denounces unbridled greed which ultimately will contribute to society’s decay as evidenced by the prophet Nathan’s comment of Kivsat Harash when condemning King David. Amos addressed this issue when he exhorted the rich from closing in on the poor farmers and forcing them to sell: legal but not moral

The Jewish system doesn’t believe as the yefeh nefesh do in the redistribution of wealth and a reordering of society, in order to help the poor. Judaism understands the disparity between rich and poor makes no value judgment in that, but our willingness to give Tzedakah. But no one is expected tp provide Tzedakah to the lazy, alcoholics or drug addicts. There is nothing in our value system that condemns materialism, wealth or the pursuit of wealth. In fact we aren’t embarrassed to ask God for his munificence, as is expressed in our tefillot. There is no justification for Jews to be made to feel guilty about pursuing careers where amassing wealth is its by product. There is nothing in our tradition that justifies affirmative action at the expense of more talented people or where Jews will be discriminated against.

While we are commanded to give 10% to Tzedakah there must be some concerns over this number. Initially when we were commanded to give the 10 % this was in lieu of an efficient tax structure, and based upon an agrarian economy, with virtually no other effective welfare system in place. It isn’t at all clear if this 10 % was intended as the base tax or as a sur tax, and if it was based on one’s gross or net.

These questions ought not to be see as argumentative or meant to be mocking, because in terms of halachic application and ethical considerations these issues must be contended with. Under our current tax system, whether in America or Israel, a considerable amount of our tax dollars are allocated to social concerns: Health Welfare and Education, Medicaid and Medicare. The taxes allocated to these programs in essence are Tzedakah. Therefore, it may well be that by paying our taxes we are fulfilling the commandment of Tzedakah. Paying any more Tzedakah would be superfluous as far as the mitzvah is concerned.

This type of Tzedakah, in Rambam’s estimation, would be toward the lower end of his rating system. He developed a rating system by which Tzedakah is valued. Had the liberal democrats of the 1960’s given ear to the Rambam perhaps we would have been able to realize the Great Society of the LBJ democrats. Their approach to correcting poverty in the world is similar to that of todays liberals-those who hold Tikkun Olam inhigh esteem. According to the Rambam the most meaningful form of Tzedakah is not by giving money, but by providing work, partnerships or providing a loan to a business. The least meaningful forms of Tzedakah are “throwing money” at the problem. He understood that in the long term, giving money wasn’t what solved the problems of poverty, but that providing the tools, education and opportunity was the answer.


The current paradigm of Tikkun Olam has no basis in our tradition, whether we search the Mishna or Kabbalah. It is a fabrication cobbled together by left over liberals in the tradition of the failed Great Society of the 1960’s. It was a system where entitlement programs were seen as the panacea for our problems and where individual responsibility and accountability, once considered virtuous, were conveniently replaced with a new virtue allowing for society to bear that burden. It is no wonder that when this burden becomes unbearable and too difficult to carry, this form of Tikkun Olam will be shrugged by Atlas.

Shechita and Tikkun Olam-Hijacked

Shechita and Tikkun Olam, two core mitzvot, ostensibly have little in common other than the fact that they are practiced religiously by a significant number of Jews. Many of our mitzvot are intended to give tangible expression to otherwise amorphous ethical teachings. However, both of these mitzvot share a common fate-both have been hijacked and as a result altered the intended message of the mitzvah.

Slaughtering animals for human consumption through halachic practice called shechita is an example of this phenomenom. Torah, in its pristine format viewed man as a non meat eater. Evidence of this is found in the Biblical text of the creation story. Man was a tiller of soil and although there are indications that they were herders in the ante-deluvian world there is no Biblical evidence that he was carnivorous. Only in the post-deluvian world did God, by default, permit man to eat meat.

The intricate and detailed method of kosher slaughtering was intended to prevent man from becoming numb to the suffering of animal life. The subliminal ethic was that if man remained sensitive to the suffering of animals, he would have a higher regard for mankind. In a sense then, slaughtering animals for the purpose of consumption was B’dieved (by default) and not a L’chatchila. In Talmudic literature there was a shift when meat is seen more as a centerpiece to celebration, so much so that our Rabbis declared ein simcha ella bvasar uvyayin-a religious celebration should be accompanied with meat and wine. There wasn’t necessarily a negation of the non-meat products but more of an affirmation of the use of meat. If we fast forward to America in the 21st century the evolution is complete with the negation of the use of non meat products for a religious celebration. A baal teshuva asked a rav to clarify a case of situational ethics. He and his wife recently became orthodox and the community was very embracing. Over the period of many months they had accepted routinely invitations for Shabbat lunches. Although they were vegetarian, they accepted the invitations but ate “around” the meat dishes. They wanted to reciprocate but were in a quandary regarding the kind of food they would be willing to serve, so they asked the Rav if it would be acceptable to invite people for vegetarian Shabbat meals. The Rav ruled that it would be inappropriate since it is Jewish tradition to celebrate religious meals with meat. The paradigm had shifted-where meat was once considered a B’deeved, it has now become a L’chatchila.

The paradigm however shifted further. The entire purpose of shechita was to eliminate or minimize as much as humanly possible the pain and suffering of animals. Today, however, with the economic pressure of maintaining strong profit margins in our kosher slaughter houses, the concern for the welfare of the animal and laborer has all but gone by the wayside. It is not surprising that an animal rights group (PETA) documented the inhumane treatment of the animals at one of the largest meat packing companies (Agriprocessors). This same company has also been accused of poor working conditions and exploitation of unskilled and undocumented workers. This past week, Federal subpoenas against this plant and other kosher meat packing plants for collusion and anti-trust activities have been filed.

One could parallel the hijacking of the mitzvah of Shechita and its paradigm shift to a rather different mitzvah: Tikkun Olam. The earliest expression of Tikkun Olam is found in the Aleynu prayer which is recited three times daily:

As we put our hopes in thee, o Lord our God,that we may soon see the glory of thy power, the earth rid of abominations and the idols cut down and the world repaired in the kingdom of God. (Letaken Olam Bemalchut Shadai)

Essentially, this rendering of Tikkun Olam discourages a pluralistic society where there are multiple approaches to spirituality and many formats of expressing belief in God. (Not very politically correct in the liberal community of the 21st century.)

The expression of Tikun Olam is also found in the Mishne where the phrase Mipne Tikkun Olam is used in a legal context. Here the understanding of the term is that although certain actions are not required by law, Mipne Tikkun Olam, one should behave in a certain manner in order to avoid potential promiscuity. For example, if a man sends a writ of divorce (Get) by messenger to his wife and changes his mind prior to her receiving it, technically he can cancel the Get without notifying her. The Rabbis, however, in their infinite wisdom, ruled Mipne Tikkun Olam, this isn’t advised. If she assumes that she is divorced she may have a relationship with another man. To avoid this, he must notify her of his change of mind.

It was only in the 16th century with the development of Lurianic Kabbalah did Tikkun Olam take on a more popular currency. Lurianic Kabbala gave absolutely no credence to “social” aspects of Tikkun Olam. The act of repairing to which they referred was cosmic in nature and implied no social action. Lurianic Kabbalist believed that the universe was in a shattered state and in need of repair and only by practicing mitzvot can the world be repaired. This act of aiding in the repair was intended to be accomplished by developing a deep personal and emotional relationship with God.

Michael Lerner, founder and editor of Tikkun Magazine, known for his Rainbow coalition politics and attacks on Israel, exploited Lurianic Kabbala and gave new unlicensed expression to Tikkun Olam as a form of redemptive social action. Tikkun Olam was hijacked by Jewish Liberals-neither in its Mishnaic, nor Kabbalistic meaning was it ever intended as advocacy for social justice, environmentalism or redistribution of wealth.

Both mitzvot of Shechita and Tikkun Olam are paradigms that have been stood on their head, essentially robbed of their original intent and meaning. Jews are not going to become vegetarian, nor will meat packing companies be able to operate at a loss. Certainly we aren’t in a position to eradicate idol worship. The ethics of tolerance and pluralism are all values that we ought to embrace but not under the guise of Tikkun Olam. Maintaining a kosher lifestyle becomes meaningless if there is no regard for animal life and respect for humanity.

The Ethics of Shechita

This past week the Forward carried another piece on the Postville slaughterhouse owned and managed by an orthodox Jewish concern. AgriProcessors has been accused of providing poor working conditions, substandard wages and in general an exploitative approach to its workers. According to the article, different religious groups will be investigating the charges leveled against the slaughterhouse and hopefully there will be an equitable resolution to an otherwise distasteful set of allegations.

There are two issues at play and only one of them is being dealt with. Unless both issues are dealt with the matter cannot be resolved fully. The immediate issue revolves around the conditions of employment. This, the different Rabbinic agencies will investigate and will render their recommendations. The other issue however is more systemic and more profound. It is the attitude of the certification agencies which render a plant kosher.

The certification process is a technical matter. The Shochtim performing their services must be supervised to insure the process is correctly carried out. The pre and post slaughtering of the animals must be checked to standards. All of the technicalities rendered in Hilchot Shechita must be copiously observed if the product is to receive and maintain the desired hechsher. What isn’t being monitored is the grey area - the working conditions of the laborers. The administrator at a significant kosher certification organization, Rabbi Moshe Edelstein has been quoted as saying that his organization doesn’t concern itself with the workers conditions of employment:

“We can’t get involved in issues of labor, because that’s not our job there, and they have not hired us to do that.”

It ought to be their job. The issues of workers conditions, rights and protection from harm should carry as much weight as checking for infractions of Hilchot Shechita. Shechita has to be performed with a certain method, using a certain type of razor sharp blade, and as quickly as possible so as not to cause the animal any undue pain. If the slaughtering takes too long even if the technique was correct it is rendered invalid. Underlying the correct methodology of Shechita is the prime consideration for the humane treatment of the animal and this because of the Biblical law against Tzar L’baalei Chaim. If we have to be so careful in the care and treatment of the animals minimizing its pain when rendering them suitable for kosher doesn’t it follow that the workers handling the animals should be entitled to the same considerations? It would seem logical, therefore, that workers conditions of employment as well as other labor issues should be under the purview of the various kosher certification agencies.

The ethic of Tzar l’baalei Chaim ought to carry a much broader application when dealing with issues of kosher-treif, and if as a result of poor working conditions there is a pattern of injury , illness and exploitation, the hechsher ought to be suspended pending resolution of the unethical treatment of its workforce. Thus, it would seem that the kosher certification agencies ought to put in place standards and regulations relating to the welfare of the laborer so that there are few if any repeats of this unethical conduct.

For the Love of God and Man

Recently an article by Yaffa Ganz entitled Love Borders and Civilization appeared in the Jerusalem post in which she derided a ten day Gay Conference to be held in Israel. The tone of the homophobic article was harsh and in some measure cruel, bringing to mind anti-Semitic comments made about Jews by intolerant gentiles throughout the ages. Of course, her irrational fear of the homosexual community is based on erroneous information as well as a less than compassionate heart.

The issue of the homosexual community in general and the Jewish one in particular is more, I believe an issue of Jewish Ethics and less halachic in nature. Although there is a growing Art Scroll community which views Jewish Law and practice through the very narrow spectrum of Asur and Mutar, in reality the law is based more so on a corpus of sacred texts, Midrashic and Rabbinic literature that together form the spiritual, moral and ethical principles which guide us. We are not fundamentalists as the corpus of Talmud, Midrash, Rabbinic and Responsa will attest to. To make a monumental and categorical judgement about the homosexual community based upon a few scriptural verses is erroneous. It is these same scriptures, the same Torah that tries to cultivate within us the love of humankind.

We live in a harsh, cold and cruel universe and it is precisely because of the chaos we found ourselves in that Torah and Halacha was given to us - to help us make sense and give meaning to an otherwise loveless and unforgiving world. The Torah was given to us to teach us and help us love humanity in an otherwise loveless world because “the ways of the Torah are pleasantness and all its paths are peace.”

“Believing Jews” Yaffa Ganz says “are adamantly opposed to the blatant display of sexuality, but a display of aberrant behavior clearly prohibited by the Bible is doubly appalling.” 21st century Jews, as in previous generations are not nor have ever been monolithic in their belief system. There are many Rabbis, Theologians and spiritual leaders even within the orthodox community who would vehemently disagree with the intolerance of this approach.

Her fear that “promoting public, social and legal recognition of homosexuality as an alternate life style means admitting that there is no value in perpetuating life. It is destructive, nihilistic, and absolutely anti-life ethos.” There is a Talmudic ruling (Yevamot 64a) that says when after ten years of marriage there are no children, the husband may no longer abstain from the commandment of propagation. The man can divorce his wife, yet the Rabbis, in their wisdom and compassion found this difficult and ruled that they may live together since the purpose of marriage isn’t only for propagation. “Lo Tov Hayot Hadam Levado”, marriage is also for friendship, love and companionship. Furthermore, Rabbis are not proscribed from performing a marriage ceremony if the couple cannot conceive children. Clearly, the expression of Jewish law isn’t a compendium of cold, calculated and harsh do’s and don’ts, but is an intricately woven system which has blended into it compassion, understanding, empathy and love, underscoring motive and intent.

Society has the power to protect, welcome and honor its minorities, or turn their existence into a living hell. Unfortunately, we bear this stain of intolerance with regard to the homosexual community. I can excuse our sages and Rabbis that came before us, because they knew no better. Our sages didn’t understand the etiology of homosexuality and ruled, based upon the best information they had at the time as they did with regard to the Cheresh who was rendered a Shoteh. Until the end of the nineteenth century a cherish was barred from full participation in the religios/ritual life of the community. Today, thanks to Rabbi I.H.Herzog a Cheresh fully participates in the religious/ritual life of the community. Should the homosexual be treated differently knowing today its etiology which is genetic in nature? Homosexuals are who they are, not by choice, but by an act of creation, and they too are created in the image of God. We are ethically and morally obligated to give honor and respect to them as to any other heterosexual, if for no other reason than they were created in the image of God.

They have been denied their fundamental civil and religious rights and because of this they demonstrate, as they should. Their demonstrations are no different than those of the 1960’s and 1970’s to save Soviet Jewry when their basic civil and religious rights were denied. The homosexual community isn’t interested in being different or separate from the broader Jewish community, only to be accorded the same rights, freedom and dignity as every other human being. By what right do we have to treat them as pariahs? Are we not commanded to extend our love to the Ger, how much more so to our own people who happen to be genetically different from the heterosexual, but similar in that sense to the cheresh who wish only to be fully participatory in the Jewish community.

Israel is not a theocracy, but an enlightened democracy. Laws are decided by a majority and those laws must be obeyed. However, it is a democratic principle that matters of individual conscience, faith and private morality aren’t subject to majority opinions. There are times when in matters of ethics the majority is wrong.. The trailblazers in history have oftentimes been individuals. The government of a democracy must concern itself only with the business of running an orderly society. As soon as it begins to rule over the conscience of its citizens, dictating values, it risks becoming immoral. To impose halachic values is counterproductive and creates resentment and the opposite of the desired effect. For halacha to work it has to evolve once again into the “wisdom of the feasible”, underscoring the ethics of life.

Those who prefer the authoritarian approach aren’t motivated to search our sources creatively for the meaning and the value in ethical living. They ought to take a lesson from Rabbi Abraham, the son of the Rambam who wrote:
…the rule of the matter is…say I…that a Dayan who in his decision follows only what is written and clearly stated, is weak and wanting. Such an attitude invalidates what the sages said “A Dayan has to be guided by his own understanding….” With him it is not so. What is written are the roots. Every Dayan and everyone who gives decisions must weigh them according to each case that comes before him. Every decision that he is considering he should compare to something that is similar to it. He should develop branches from the roots. The numerous case histories in the Talmud, which incorporate only part of the laws were not reported for nothing; but neither were they recorded so that in those matters the law should always be as it is written there. They were preserved only that the wise man, by hearing them often, should acquire efficiency in weighing up matters rationally, as well as a good method in giving decisions.

The author of the Kzot Hahoshen, in his introduction to the Hoshen Hamishpat articulated the same idea when he wrote:
One trembles at the thought that one might say about the Torah things that are not true, i.e. that the human mind is too weak to grasp the truth….The Torah was not given to ministering angels. It was given to the man with a human mind. He gave us the Torah in conformity to the ability of the human mind to decide, even though it may not be the truth….

In this spirit many Teshuvot have been written, minority opinions, which seek to find a way by which to include this community so that they may be full participants. Halachic approaches such as Patur Aval Asur and Ones Rahman Patrei are but a few of these creative approaches which by applying them push the frontiers a little further back and in so doing give meaning to the words “The Torah ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.”

Depleted Judaism

In recent weeks there has been a spate of news articles about segments of the ultra-orthodox Jewish community which suggests a disturbing lack of fundamental core values. Some of these revelations revolve around sexual-predatory abuse and pedophilia, and their cover-ups. Other revelations suggested the lack of true kosher slaughtering standards and scruples at a major slaughter house in the Midwest.

To be sure, these issues aren’t new. Several years ago there was the revelation of a cover-up at a leading orthodox institution regarding the sexual abuse of one of its rising star rabbis. For years there have been watchdog organizations warning that the so-called kosher slaughter practice at that particular facility does not stand up to its claim of being the most humane system. It appeared then, and based upon hidden cameras the concern for the bottom line trumped any concern for the humane treatment of the animals destined for slaughter. In both instances one would have thought that as a result of exposure and public scrutiny, these institutions which claim to espouse strict halachic standards would have put into place standards and protocols that would have been reassuring to the public so that these behaviors would never repeat themselves.

What has become alarming is the frequency of occurrences. Over the past several years there have been some notable cases of Rabbis’s in leadership positions who betrayed the public trust:
Rabbi Mordechai Tendler
Rabbi Baruch Lanner
Rabbi Yonah Metzger
Rabbi Yehuda Kolko
As recently as three weeks ago The Forward published an article about an Orthodox American Rabbi living in Israel accused among other things, of sexual abuse. Examining Rabbi Gafni’s past it became clear that this wasn’t the first time charges of this nature were leveled against him. There had been several occasions when in the past his behavior was covered up by Rabbis who preferred silence rather than coming to grips with deviant behavior. The New York magazine featured an article recently where another Rabbi from an ultra-orthodox Yeshiva in New York has for the past two decades abused adolescent boys. Again, this too was covered up for years by the rabbinic community. If one were to log on to the awareness center. org one would be shocked by the sheer volume of documented cases of sexual abuse by our rabbis. These are not isolated cases. For years in Chicago there had been cover-ups of abusive sexual behavior perpetrated by Rabbis on their unsuspecting students.

Recently The Forward exposed once again the Ultra-Orthodox owned and operated slaughterhouse, Agri Processors for inappropriate management of their kosher slaughterhouse. In the past they were cited for cruel and unusual treatment of animals. This time however they are accused of cruel behavior towards undocumented workers as well as exploitation of their compromised position.

Both of these phenomena share in common the same religious affiliation and ideology. In both instances the perpetrators are not only orthodox but Rabbinic in stature. In both instances they are not acting independently but with the support and backing of the orthodox establishment. And that my friends is the rub. While the behavior of the perpetrators is shocking what is indicative of a lack of systemic ethical awareness are the cover-ups. Every culture, group or sub group will have in its midst predators and those who will cheat for profit. In most societies there are agencies and methods by which to acknowledge and limit as much as possible the damagen and prevent reoccurrence. There is, however something disturbing when a group refuses to recognize or deal with the problem preferring to dismiss it or sweep it under the carpet. A case in point is the Vale case, a young haredi living in Mea Shearim, accused of murdering his infant son. The haredi community in Israel, rather than cooperate with the authorities in bringing this young haredi to justice is doing everything in its power to cover up the heinous crime by turning it into an accident. Something is fundamentally wrong with the orthodox establishment. There seems to be an absence of a collective moral and ethical conscience within that culture. There seems to be a deviated approach to truth when vague and misunderstood concepts such as Lashon Harah come into play. There are circumstances when one is obligated to share information with the public if it means protecting the innocent or preventing or solving a crime. There seems to be a fundamental lack of morality, and social conscience when confronted with the possibility of Chillul Hashem. Rather than an ethical imperative which guides this community even at the cost of Chillul Hashem there is collective selfishness that prefers to “get away with it” if at all possible.

The ultra-orthodox establishment emphasizes ritual to the extent that they have eclipsed the true meaning, purpose and value of Torah. The purpose of Torah is to provide man with the tools whereby he can Transcend and live an ethical life. The mitzvoth are not an end in and of themselves but are intended to serve as “practices” by which we can rise above, become better human beings closing the distance between men and angels. Unfortunatly, the emphasis on ritual has morphed Judaism from its original intent and left it in a depleted form unrecognizable from the original intent. The Mitzvah has become and end in itself and as such has become a form of Avodah Zarah. The fanatical attraction to stringent practice of ritual has sucked the life and spirit out of Ethical Judaism as practiced by this community of zealots. It is no wander then that Glatt Kosher (a minority opinion in the Shulchan Aruch) has trumped the concern for the humane and compassionate treatment of animals. The Lubavitch Shechita, under the name of Rubashkin is more concerned about their esoteric and questionable methods than they are about the treatment of human beings, even if they aren’t Jewish. Eating their Glatt Kosher meat under these circumstances cannot provide the means for transcendence and has become a mockery of Jewish values as is learning Torah from a sexual predator.

The ultra-orthodox Jewish community as it is evolving and on its present trajectory is on a self destruct course with little or no spiritual values to save it. It is a depleted version of Judaism and appears to be bankrupt of ethical standards. It is somewhat akin to many of the anachronistic Jewish organizations that exist out of inertia. Its only value is to perpetuate itself. If this community truly retains spiritual values than where is their outrage? Why the deafening silence or the posturing of those in leadership position for the sole intent of saving their careers and reputations? Why aren’t they screaming to the heavens as they do on Yom Kippur during the Neila Service?

Several weeks age A.B. Yehoshua addressed the American Jewish Committee charging that a Jew in the diaspora can’t live as meaningful an existence as an Israeli Jew living in Israel, even if he is secular. He kept on referring to Jewish values permeating the state of Israel without ever delineating what those values are. The real issue is whether or not we as Jews are living with Jewish values regardless of our geography. The time has come to clearly define what those Jewish values are. The time has come when the Jewish community says loudly and clearly that we won’t tolerate deviant behavior, sexual or otherwise. Those values I believe must be defined and taught in our synagogues, day schools and seminaries. People placed in positions of trust must be screened. It is no longer enough that they possess Semicha or its equivalent. Sound moral character coupled with a strong understanding and practice of Jewish ethics must set the standard for doing business with companies that supply our communities with kosher products or hiring spiritual leaders to serve our communities.

There are some core Jewish values which without will be hard to live as people. Hillel in an attempt to simplify thing made his comment of “Don’t Do Unto Others….” While this is profoundly true, perhaps the time has come to amplify upon this in our Yeshiva curriculum and begin teaching core Jewish values which focus on ethics and ethical behavior rather than pilpulistic Judaism that has been responsible in part to the perversions we are witnessing.