Category: Religion

I recently wondered on Facebook how people define religious “authenticity,” meaning actions or beliefs which reflect an (or the) genuine manifestation of a religion. This is a question I frequently consider regarding Judaism, particularly Orthodox Judaism, where adherents perpetually argue over which (or more accurately, whose) opinions, interpretations, beliefs, or practices define the franchise of being “Orthodox.”  These sorts of questions are generally internal to Orthodox Judaism, where affiliates claim authority to determine the boundaries and legitimacy of a nominally shared identification.

At the same time, I have been more attuned to the similar arguments over what is “authentic” Islam,  which have become commonplace in the public sphere. It does not take much effort to find studies and screeds differentiating between “moderate” or “fundamentalist” Islam, or those who assert with confidence that there is no meaningful difference between them.

As someone who has had an insider’s view of the debate within Judaism, I have been equally fascinated and frustrated by the parallel discussions regarding Islam. Many of the same people who can identify dozens of denominations and sub-denominations within Judaism (or Christianity) can only speak of Islam as single, unified phenomenon. Many of those who see fit to define Islam based solely on English translations of selected Quranic verses would quickly dismiss anyone whose conception of Judaism was based on similarly selected English translations of the Bible. Complicating matters even further is that as I have read the works of actual scholars of Islam, my own illiteracy in the subject matter precludes me from evaluating the merits of any statement, while my experience in reading Jewish scholarship precludes me from trusting anyone at face value.

With this in mind, I am exceptionally grateful for the contribution of the late Shahab Ahmed’s What is Islam?: The Importance of Being Islamic, 1 an earnest attempt at not only defining Islam, but essentially reclaiming it.

Notes:

  1. I came across the book via a review by Prof. Noah Feldman, a colleague of Ahmed who assisted with the final stages of the book, as Ahmed had already fallen ill before its completion.

Religion

I’m not a coward, I’ve just never been tested.
I’d like to think that if I was I would pass.
Look at the tested, and think there but for the grace go I.
Might be a coward, I’m afraid of what I might find out.
The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, “The Impression That I Get”

With the recent US Supreme Court decision Obergefell v. Hodges declaring same-sex marriage to be a constitutionally protected right, religious organizations are understandably concerned as to how they will be affected by this new legal reality.  In addition to public statements issued by The Rabbinical Council of America and the Orthodox Union, several rabbinic colleagues have expressed similar concerns shared by other religious leaders regarding what this ruling might mean for their own practice, particularly if they will now be forced to officiate or facilitate a practice which violates their religious beliefs. 1

Aside from these concerns over government interference in religious affairs, the Supreme Court’s ruling may have more salient ramifications on a communal level. Specifically, with same-sex marriage legalized nationally, Orthodox homosexual couples may be more likely take advantage of the benefits such legal recognition provides. This new reality may create new tensions within communities where such couples may expect or demand religious recognition for their union.

While these concerns are currently dominating the discussion, my sense is that the attention is misplaced. I do not mean to be dismissive of the concerns of others, but I suggest the details are not nearly as significant as the underlying existential tensions.

Notes:

  1. In 2011 when New York was about to legalize same-sex marriage, I argued that Orthodox Jews should not oppose such legislation but rather insist on religious protections.

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As a public service for those with shorter attention spans, here is the text of Maimonides’ Haggadah, which you will notice is slightly abridged from our popular versions. Feel free…

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The fact that “defensible borders” is still employed in Israeli / Palestinian rhetoric demonstrates that even proponents of a Palestinian state are not fully convinced by the “peace-loving” intentions. Any call for “land for peace” based on “defensible borders” is thus paradoxical to the point of dishonest for it assumes that Israel would still face a military threat despite acquiescing territory.

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On May 23 2011 several prominent Orthodox Jewish organizations issued a joint statement declaring their opposition to legalizing same sex-marriage. The brief statement is as follows:

On the issue of legalizing same-sex marriage, the Orthodox Jewish world speaks with one voice, loud and clear:

We oppose the redefinition of the bedrock relationship of the human family.

The Torah, which forbids homosexual activity, sanctions only the union of a man and a woman in matrimony. While we do not seek to impose our religious principles on others, we believe the institution of marriage is central to the formation of a healthy society and the raising of children. It is our sincere conviction that discarding the historical definition of marriage would be detrimental to society.

Moreover, we are deeply concerned that, should any such redefinition occur, members of traditional communities like ours will incur moral opprobrium and may risk legal sanction if they refuse to transgress their beliefs. That prospect is chilling, and should be unacceptable to all people of good will on both sides of this debate.

The integrity of marriage in its traditional form must be preserved.

This statement was issued not only by Orthodox institutions considered “right-of center” such as Agudath Israel of America or National Council of Young Israel, but also by more moderate Orthodox organizations such as the Orthodox Union (OU) and the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA).1 Unlike most religious proclamations which are directed towards specific religious communities, this joint statement advocates a political position – though based on religious principles – to the secular world beyond the normal scope of religious influence. To be sure, this joint statement is hardly the first time rabbinic organizations have issued political statements. Across all major denominations, the Orthodox RCA, Conservative Rabbinical Assembly, and Reform Central Conference of American Rabbis have all passed resolutions advocating public polices exemplifying their respective religious beliefs, with few (if any) complaining about the separation of church and state.

But due to the inherent subjective moral arguments against same-sex marriage, I argue that Jews – especially the Orthodox – would be better served in not opposing its legalization.

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