Category Archives: Jewish Culture

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To Abstain Courteously

Update: Also see the later and more detailed post How to Handle
SIW points us to the OU’s new site dedicated to abstinence with the redirected link
SIW himself is critical of the OU’s position on condoms:

Read through the literature on the abstinence movement making its way through public schools and other childhood education, and you’ll find that it leads to decreased condom use among the sexually-active, that self-proclaimed “virgins” frequently choose instead to engage in sexual activity that they simply don’t consider “sexual intercourse” and tend to do it in an unsafe manner, and myriad other issues. Now, if you were thinking that when Jewish groups, with so many health professional among their ranks having spoken out against these pro-abstinence tactics, would veer away from suggestions that could tempt Jewish youth into unsafe practices, you’d be wrong.

There’s an exchange I had with my Niddah Rabbi in smikha which may help explain the rationale. Given the increase in sexual activity in the Jewish community (especially among teenagers), I asked if at some point we should encourage women to go to mikvah even single to at least negate the issur karet. The response was that were that to be the policy the result would be an even greater increase in sexual activity and no greater likelihood of taharat hamishpacha. I’m guessing the OU is doing something similar here, advocating a stricter halakhic stance, because allowing for anything less would tacitly approve of sexual activity.

What bothers me here is not so much the content, but the obviously condescending and pandering tone. From the design of the site it seems clear that they’re trying to speak to the younger generation – e.g. a section called “Your Bod” – but such attempts are like your parents trying to act “cool” and “hip.” This approach never works because it’s artificial and eventually the charade will be exposed. Case in point, here’s one attempt at cultural relevancy:

Deciding to abstain can be easier said than done. In our society, sex is literally everywhere, from magazine covers to billboards and from car ads to beer commercials. “Back in the day,” only soap operas might feature sexually active characters. Lucy and Ricky slept in separate beds. All Greg Brady might get after a date was a peck on the cheek. When Natalie lost her virginity to Snake on The Facts of Life, that was huge – and it was only 1988! Now, shows like Friends and Seinfeld, whose characters routinely jump from bed to bed, are considered “quaint.” The personalities of characters on shows like Will and Grace, The OC and Sex and the City are virtually defined by their sex lives! All this makes it seem as if promiscuity is the societal norm. It isn’t, nor should it be.

Demonstrating moral decay from television shows is not a new argument. While they get points for knowing about The OC and Sex and the City, who under the age of 27 would remember a specific episode of Facts of Life let alone I Love Lucy? More importantly, what teenager would find this argument compelling?

Teenagers may be growing up faster, but that also means that they can expose and reject condescending tripe much easier. In other words, just as the behaviors and mentality of teenagers changed over time, the OU would need to adjust accordingly. I’m not arguing against the OU’s agenda given the alarming rise in sexual activity and the dangers involved, but there has to be a more appropriate and effective strategy to communicate and influence behaviors.

Posted in Jewish Dating, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava.

The Energies of Conservation

In a statement released yesterday, the Jewish Theological Seminary has officially changed its policy and will admit gay and lesbian students to its rabbinical and cantorial school. We have previously covered this issue with our initial reaction when the news broke, a detailed response to the Dorff teshuva which provided the halakhic basis for the policy change, and a brief survey of the reactions from other denominations.

For most observers the official decision to admit homosexual students was a forgone conclusion and largely anti-climatic. Given the history and hermeneutics of Conservative Judaism, it would of little suprise that the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) would eventually rationalize a dispensation, and once articulated the dispensation would likely be implemented.

However, this controversy is particularly interesting as not only exemplary of how Conservative Judaism functions organically, but also of its most recent trends and implementations. In our previous discussions, one of our recurring themes was that despite the specific innovation of ordaining homosexuals, the decision and process followed well established ideological, halakhic, and social patterns of Conservative Judaism. In his explanation of the decision, JTS Chancellor-Elect Arnold Eisen continues in the Conservative tradition through the lens of his own personal interpretations.

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Posted in Jewish Culture, Jewish Law / Halakha, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava. Tagged with , .

A Voice In The Heights Is Heard

The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools (Kohelet 9:17)

Like all Jewish communities Washington Heights has its share of internal controversies, but rarely do they become publicized. Most discussions on the Maalotwashington message board did not get circulated and at times they were moderated when the discussion happened to get out of hand. In the rare instances that a significant problem arose, we have usually been able to achieve some resolution or at least mutual understanding and do so with minimal fanfare.
But as the community continues to grow and the transient community constantly changes, the internal dynamics will naturally have to adapt. Having more people in the community means more ideas and opinions among the congregation, but fewer outlets for an individual to express them. In Washington Heights this can be particularly frustrating since the community is ideologically diverse (relatively) there are more opinions and perspectives which would be ignored or in some cases suppressed. From the other point of view, it is likely that an established community would have confronted many of the “new” issues at some point and would not wish to repeatedly revisit old arguments every few years given the high turnover of members. The mutual question at hand then becomes how can individuals express themselves, and in turn, how does the community respond.
The past few weeks have been unusually eventful with a heated debate over women speaking in the synagogue and the formation of a new “progressive” minyan. While both could be considered controversial to varying degrees, the discussions surrounding them demonstrate different examples of expression within a religious community.

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Posted in Jewish Culture, Jewish Law / Halakha, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava. Tagged with , , .

Taking Each Other Down A Peg

דרש בר קפרא, מאי דכתיב: “ויתד תהיה לך על אזנך?” אל תקרי אזנך אלא על אוזנך,
שאם ישמע אדם דבר שאינו הגון יניח אצבעו באזניו -בבלי כתובות ה:א-ב
Bar Kafra expounded: What is the meaning of the verse “And you shall have pegs (yated) among your tools”? (Deut. 23:14) Do not read “your tools” (azeinecha) but rather “your ears” (oznecha) such that if someone were to hear something inappropriate, he should plug his ears with his fingers (B. Ketuvot 5a)

I had barely taken a few steps in the apartment upon returning from Chicago when Roommate Yonah asks me if I had been following the big news on the blogosphere. Apparently, the Israeli newspaper Yated Ne’eman printed more missives directed against Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) where Roommate Yonah is currently finishing smikha. This of course led to several discussions, points, counterpoints, and of course the expected flamewars.

During my time off I had intentionally minimized my web surfing, so I was blissfully ignorant of this whole brouhaha. My initial reaction when Yonah summarized the happenings is exactly how I feel right now:

To be perfectly blunt, I just don’t care.

In other circumstances I would not waste the time and energy in continuing this discussion, but I do feel that a meta-analysis would do some good. Specifically, why is it that Yated’s editorials are so important to so many people to warrant such outrage?
The simple answer is just that people don’t like being insulted in any context, especially regarding one’s spiritual beliefs (and possibly inherited traditions). When insulted and rejected on such a personal level, it should not be surprising to find people react defensively. But this is only a partial explanation since there are many occasions when we or our faiths are insulted and yet we ignore those insults without incident.

First, there is the issue of giving undue respect to the authors of the editorials and letters. I have a theory that the impact of insults and criticisms (and conversely compliments) is proportional to how much we respect our tormentors. For example, a five year old teasing “you’re stupid” can be disregarded more easily than hearing those same words from your professor or boss. The difference is obvious; we are more concerned with how our professors and superiors view our intellectual acumen than a random immature brat.
Religious attacks are no different in this regard in that we only will be sensitive to attacks from those people whose religious beliefs we value or respect. What I do not understand is how Yated would deserve this level of acknowledgment. While there could be a reasonable debate as to which hashkafot are “acceptable” in Jewish thought, it appears that Yated failed in not only presenting a rational argument but did not bother to do rudimentary fact-checking in the interest of determining exactly what YCT represents. People who would criticize as such – both in terms of argument and evidence – would ordinarily not be considered a “bar plugta” deserving of a response.

Herein lies the second issue in that sometimes even absurd positions need rebutting. When the Niturei Karta people infamously participated in the Iran Holocaust Conferencethere was a near-universal outcry and even public protests. These were not done out of respect for Niturei Karta, but to demonstrate that their positions were fanatical and outside the bounds of the Jewish community.
But for whom were these protests staged? I doubt that any member of Niturei Karta would look at the throngs of people holding placards and consequently reverse his positions, and I suspect that the protesters had no such expectations. Rather, the statement was made for the uninformed people who could be influenced by the Niturei Karta’s presence or more importantly a reaffirmation of one’s own beliefs and to demonstrate solidarity in their own common cause.

When Yated publishes such editorials, they do so for a readership which demands little by way of journalistic evidence to justify existing religious prejudices. In a similar vein, YCT promotes its hashkafa not to convince the Haredi community of their legitimacy but to reach out to those who would be receptive. What makes these flamewars particularly pointless is that in the exchange people forget that they will not convince people who are predisposed to their own opinions, especially when the argument is as juvenile as “yes, you’re koferim” and “no we’re not – you’re the koferim.”

Despite the general need for more religious dialogue, we also have to realize that sometimes it is more useful not to engage in certain conversations. While YCT supporters could be justified in defending the institution, they ought to realize that not much will be gained in a confrontation but instead would be better served by focusing their energies on those whom they have a chance of influencing.
As for Yated, those who are predisposed to disagree with their opinions have a Talmudic suggestion for a more appropriate response.

Posted in Jewish Culture, News & Events. Tagged with , .

Conservative Reaction Roundup

We have already written extensively about the Conservative decision regarding homosexuality. While there is still room to discuss the halakhic issues – including analyzing the other teshuvot, today’s focus will be on some of the Orthodox reactions to the teshuva. Nothing here should be terribly surprising, especially considering the knee-jerk reactions, but we find the reactions to be enlightening and revealing nonetheless.
First up, we have this disclaimer from the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA):

This decision represents yet another significant step in the further estrangement of the Conservative movement from Jewish law (halachah) and tradition. Homosexual behavior is a clear and unambiguous biblical prohibition. The attempts to formulate halachic license or creative interpretation to permit prohibited behavior should not mislead anyone committed to traditional Judaism, into thinking that there can be any permissibility to homosexual activity, whether by rabbis or laypersons. And thus, to permit those who openly proclaim their non-adherence to Torah law, to assume positions of rabbinic leadership, is an entirely regrettable step.

This quote was probably rushed out in the need to say something quickly. Note that they have to speak in generalities of “prohibited behavior” and “homosexual activity” and assume that the teshuva overrode the biblical prohibition. As we demonstrated in the review, the teshuva did no such thing, and in fact was explicitly to the contrary. Still, their arguments are consistent with the old Orthodox party line criticisms against Conservative, that their innovations and changes are a threat to traditional Judaism, while the innovations of their own (or earlier rabbis) remain ostensibly remain legitimate.
Secondly we have my personal favorite from Union of Traditional Judaism:

The Conservative Movement’s decision to issue contradictory opinions on homosexual behavior should confuse no one. The only opinion that really matters is the one that endorses gay commitment ceremonies and the ordination of professing homosexuals as rabbis.
In keeping with a decades-old pattern on a host of issues, the Conservative view which breaks ranks with Jewish law and tradition is the one which ultimately sweeps the movement. Given this reality, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards would have been more forthright had it acknowledged a blanket reversal of the biblical prohibition on homosexuality. Its endorsement of same-sex commitment ceremonies and the ordination of homosexuals while ostensibly maintaining the traditional ban on anal sex is not only disingenuous. It is ludicrous.
Our hearts go out to the dwindling corps of traditionalists who until now have remained within the Conservative Movement. Any fig leaf of commitment to Jewish law within their institutions has now been utterly stripped away…

This response also came out fairly quickly and is just as incorrect as the RCA’s statement. The teshuva still banned homosexual rabbinical students from violating the biblical commandment. However, in the other comments, UTJ reminds us of why they split off from the Conservative movement. It has been their experience – repeated time and again – that ultimately only the most liberal opinions will be accepted as normative. Egalitarianism, for example, is no longer an option but an expectation. Knowing how Conservative Judaism works from the inside, UTJ has little faith that Conservativism will sustain the limitations defined in the teshuva.
And of course, then end with a nice appeal to siphon off some traditionalist members. Nicely done.
Finally, we get to Agguda in the statements of R. Avi Shafran. Some of you may remember his controversial 2001 article “The Conservative Lie” in which, as you may expect, he was somewhat critical of the movement. The recent teshuva is for R. Shafran reason to gloat and tout the superiority of Orthodox Judaism. Not surprisingly, his comments are more ad hominem which leads him to make some careless statements of his own.
First, his comments from JPost:

And while the Conservative decision may technically claim to preserve the biblical prohibition on sodomy, it flouts clear halachic prohibitions on other forms of homosexual activity and de facto condones a homosexual lifestyle – imagine limiting a heterosexual couple to only certain expressions of affection.

Yes, imagine where heterosexual couples have limits on their expressions of affection. Perhaps we can have husbands and wives not touch each other for roughly 2 weeks out of every month. Or perhaps R. Shafran should just read Shulhan Aruch Even HaEzer Siman 25. In either case, I am pleasantly surprised to hear that hareidi Judaism had such progressively liberating views on married life.
Second, we have this official press release:

The entire corpus of halacha, or Jewish religious law,” he said, “makes abundantly clear that homosexual behavior is sinful. That a movement claiming to uphold the Jewish religious tradition can arrogate to stand halachic Judaism on its head is tragic.

By itself, this statement is fairly innocuous, but compare his vitriol for the Conservative teshuva with his ambivalence for a haredi rabbinic sexual predator:

Why would we have comment about the arrest of an individual? Because he was an employee, more than 30 years ago, of one of the camps we run (that have had thousands of employees over the years)? I don’t think that requires comment on our part.
We are not even a party anymore to any lawsuit filed against the accused, as I understand it. The suit of the accuser who included Camp Agudah in his action (John Doe #1) has been dismissed (without prejudice, I believe, so it can still be refiled, but hasn’t been).

In other words, Conservatives permitting rabbinic prohibitions represent a deviation from Judaism, but homosexual assault from a former employee is not worth a comment. These statements lead me to conclude that R. Shafran is more interested in the cultural perception of Aggudah than in morality or halakha.
We may see more responses in the near future, but the immediate reactions of the RCA, UTJ, and Aggudah reveal just as much about their organizations as it does about the teshuva itself.
UPDATE: 12/20/2006
I was just informed of a Masorati response by R. Barry Schlessinger who writes that despite the changes in the halakhic system, there must be limits:

As Jews we are obligated and commanded, and as Jews we have always asked questions in reference to the commandments. I hope we continue to ask questions and that rabbis continue to teach and guide. However, one should not always expect an answer to be positive; at times we must be forthright and respond with a “no.”

As I referenced in my response to the teshuva, Conservative Judaism has usually been loathe to accept such an answer. Furthermore, R. Schlessinger himself does not address the halakhic decisions of the teshuva itself, or why it is worse than when other rabbinic laws are similarly disregarded. Case in point:

I recognize and support the ordination of women. I count women for a minyan and will pray in a minyan led by a woman shlihat tzibur.

While the halakhic reasoning for a minyan excluding women may be questionable,1 the result is that the Talmud clearly understands a minyan to be comprised exclusively of men over the age of thirteen. The question for R. Schlessinger is what makes some rabbinic laws normative and others expendable.
UPDATE: 12/21/2006
Another reader e-mails me this Jewish Week letter in which Rabbi Adam Kligfeld does his best John Kerry impersonation (4th letter down):

I’d like to complete the comment on which Stewart Ain quoted me regarding the recent Committee on Jewish Law and Standards vote on homosexuality. (“Testing The Waters,” Dec. 8) I did indeed vote for both the Roth and Dorff/Nevins/Reisner papers, which do indeed contradict one another, because ?it was important for me that change happen as a result of a majority of the committee.”
Deeper than that, my double vote reflected not only the robust pluralism of the Conservative movement and the Law Committee itself, but also the very real pluralism of my own neshama. I take very seriously the Talmudic idea that two conflicting opinions can, simultaneously, have halachic legitimacy. I can see the truth even in a position I don’t follow. I honor the complexity of this topic, from both a halachic and sociological perspective, and I honor the halachic rigor and honest religious struggling that were present in both teshuvot. I voted not as a policy maker, but as an evaluator of halachic arguments. Each teshuvah made strong arguments.

In other words, R. Kligfeld voted for the teshuva before he voted against it. How we take R. Kligfeld’s position depends on the true role of the CJLS. If the CJLS is primarily a think-thank, then of course multiple opinions can be plausible. But if the role is for pesak in terms of what practical halakha ought to be then R. Kligfeld simply failed. Saying, something could be assur or mutar is not pesak but as R. Moshe Tendler pointed out, is the avoidance of pesak. If someone is unconvinced of an opinion, then perhaps he should abstain until resolves the issue for himself.

1. B. Megillah 23b cites Num 14:27 to define an “edah” as ten, but does not elaborate as to why men are included in this number to the exclusion of women.

Posted in Jewish Culture, Jewish Law / Halakha, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava. Tagged with , , .

A Response To The Conservative Teshuva On Homosexuality

Update: Readers of this post may also be interested in my master’s thesis
When I made my preliminary comments on the Conservative movement’s recent decisions regarding homosexuality, the best source available at the time were press releases and either superficial or inaccurate coverage in the mainstream media. Fortunately, Steven I. Weiss has graciously posted the text of the actual teshuva. At 55 pages including footnotes, it is not exactly a light read but it is an important read nonetheless, given the serious nature of the topic discussed, and when others comment without having read the actual text. If you are new to this site, you may find my post “Lonely Men of Faith” a helpful context. This post will focus specifically on the Conservative teshuva itself.

Advisory: Normally YUTOPIA is a family blog, but given the topic of the post, some readers may feel uncomfortable with this discussion.

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Posted in Articles, Papers, and Publications, Jewish Culture, Jewish Law / Halakha, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava. Tagged with , , .

A Conservative Compromise

Conservative Judaism recently made headlines with their reevaluation of homosexuality in Jewish law. Although Conservative Judaism rejected homosexuality in 1992 (PDF), there was a request to reconsider the issue. When we covered homosexuality from an Orthodox perspective in “Lonely Men of Faith1 we referenced the debate between Rabbi Elliot Dorf and Rabbi Joel Roth, but there has obviously been significantly more discussion on the matter culminating in yesterday’s decision. From what limited information we have at this time, this new decision is hardly as groundbreaking as people might think.

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Posted in Culture, Jewish Culture, Jewish Law / Halakha, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava, News & Events. Tagged with , , .

Whither The Jewish Vote?

Be careful in your relations with the government; for they draw no man close to themselves except for their own interests. They appear as friends when it is to their advantage, but they do not stand by a man in his time of stress (M. Avot 2:3).

Despite being a demographic minority in America, Jews seemingly wield a disproportionate influence in American politics such that the “Jewish Vote” becomes an annual topic of interest. Politicians are concerned with this minority that both Democrats and Republicans equally compete for the “pro-Israel” label, and any missteps must be swiftly addressed. There has been some recent discussion as to the nature, significance, and future of the Jewish vote specifically mostly focusing on party affiliation and voting patterns. Today on YUTOPIA we will be reconsidering if partisanship is really the ideal context for defining the Jewish vote.

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Posted in Jewish Culture, Politics.

Always Simchas

The NYTimes had an article this past weekend about Wedding Fatigue brought on by the inordinate amount of time and money one spends to attend (and gift) the ever increasing number of summer weddings.
Fortunately, Jews haven’t (yet) adopted all the pre and post rituals – I still don’t understand the purpose of a rehearsal dinner – but even the weddings themselves take time and many, many Sundays. I remember some friends of mine having months of Sundays filled with weddings, along with the occasional mid-week night wedding.
I can see how too many celebrations can become wearying for one person, but I don’t understand it when people complain about it especially when you put it in the proper context. In contrast to a wedding, another significant life-cycle event which brings out friends and family is one’s funeral. And at every funeral I’ve attended I’ve heard people who haven’t seen each other in years wish, “only by simchas, only by simchas.” So now when we do have the simchas, we complain that it’s too much?
I think it’s a serious problem when simchas become burdensome as chores. Yes they are a lot of work and a significant expense, but fundamentally, they still have to be simchas. Thankfully, all the weddings I’ve attended in recent years have been genuinely enjoyable mostly because the couples always understood what was really important in a wedding. Some were more formal, others more lavish, but the fundamental simcha was always an inspiring and noticeable constant.
I don’t know if this is a changing trend or if it’s just that I’ve been fortunate to have quality people in my social circles, but in either case I think the attitude adjustment would be most welcome.

Posted in Jewish Culture.

Dates To Forget

Years ago at the Shabbat table my sister and I used to tease my father’s “selective” memory with the old joke “the memory is the second thing to go.” What made this funny was not the joke itself, but the number of times we were able to successfully elicit the appropriate response of “what’s the first?” Our amusement increased exponentially each time.

Sadly, it seems that I’ve inherited the selective memory gene, or at least as it pertains to my dating life. I first noticed this on a flight to Israel for last pesach. Trying to be friendly, I introduced myself to the person sitting across the aisle only to be reminded (very gracefully I might add) that we went out once about a year and a half earlier. Only after a good 5 minutes of solid thought was I able to recall the date. During that stay in Israel, a friend referenced the fact that I went out with someone with whom she was indirectly connected. This time it took a few days to make the connection and remember that I did in fact go out with that person. A few weeks later I participated in a Hospitality Shabbat in Washington Heights. It turns out I had gone out once with the wife of the hosting couple, but I had no idea who she was until I noticed her maiden name on her diploma.

My memory is generally flaky regarding people. Sometimes I remember a name, other times I can only remember where we met, and often I just remember that I know the other person and can go on naturally. Or I can forget someone’s name but recall some peculiar detail about the person. While I suppose it’s normal to forget people from time to time it does bother me when I cannot reciprocate even basic recognition. It’s especially troubling when I’ve met this person in the context of a date in which the entire purpose is ostensibly to actually get to know the other person.

I don’t think it’s a matter of cognitive dissonance so much as that most dates were, to put it bluntly, wholly forgettable. If a date goes horribly then we have comical stories to tell our friends. While I have my share of those, the majority of dates haven’t been good or bad, they just sort of…were.

I freely admit that it often has to do with my attitude. Given the number od disappointments and inappropriate matches, I can’t really get excited enough to put in the time, money or emotional energy to do something special. But even as dates should just be “getting to know someone,” conversations are generally safe and bland and this too is largely due to personal or ideological incompatibilities (I’ve even had to adopt the policy of avoiding talking Torah on dates). Regardless of the reasons, the results are the same. What should ostensibly be a pleasant outing usually becomes what I tend to call a “Date By Numbers.”

Mind you this doesn’t apply to everyone. Despite the frustrations, the dating process has also introduced me to some incredible and special people, some of whom have become close friends. The point is that some dates have become so perfunctory and meaningless to the point where people are interchangeable.

Even adopting a more selective approach in accepting matches has not reduced the number of pointless excursions.

I’m not going to reduce this to yet another gripe session on Jewish Dating or about how this is just part of a process etc. (Remember, I moderate the comments). Perhaps it’s just natural or inevitable to forget people who haven’t had a lasting personal impact, sort of like most grade school classmates. Even putting in more effort in the date won’t help if the other person is disinterested in reciprocating and you’d likely never see each other again.

Then again on the plus side, it does make the memorable encounters all the more valuable. And who knows, maybe one of those will be special enough that it won’t be one to let go.
Now that would be a first worth remembering.

Posted in Jewish Dating, Personal.