Category: Society

The Existential Religious Challenge of Same-Sex Marriage

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.


  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.

The Sins of the Sandy Hook Generation

“Dozens of people are gunned down each day in Springfield,
but until now none of them was important.” – The Simpsons

In the immediate aftermath of the horrific shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton CT, the country was unified in mourning. A seemingly local incident was viewed as a national tragedy, one which prompted much soul searching though not surprisingly little by way of answers. A common refrain I saw online was “there are no words” or “there is no answer – for indeed, who would dare offer any rationale justifying the murder of 20 children and 6 teachers.

In processing my own thoughts, there was one Talmudic passage which I found hard to ignore. B. Shabbat 33b records the following opinion:

When there are righteous men in a generation, they are taken for the sins of the generation. When there are no righteous in a generation, school children are taken for the generation.

As if the idea of vicarious atonement – that someone is punished to absolve others of their sins – is not theologically difficult itself, to imply that the blood of presumably innocent school children serve as some form of sacrifice for the benefit of the rest of the world is, at the very least, distasteful. And following an actual massacre of children, such an assertion would seem to be especially cruel. But after witnessing America’s reaction to the Sandy Hook shootings, it occurred to me that there may be some other truth to the Talmudic statement.

Consider for a moment just how many murders, or violent acts are committed worldwide with minimal coverage, let alone outrage. According to FBI statistics for US crime, there were 13,913 murders in 2011 and 14,103 murders in 2010, yet only a small percentage warranted national news coverage. Worldwide murders are obviousl higher depending on region, including violence against children. According to a 2008 World Health Organization report, approximately 120,000 children worldwide are treated for violence – which would exclude the number of incidents for which children are not treated – and yet relatively few of these incidents warrant our attention. In China school stabbings have been a shockingly frequent occurrence but they barely make the news in the US.

The sad reality is that murders are not uncommon in the world, nor are murders against children, and yet we as a nation remain unfazed. We can easily ignore the deaths of those in other countries because they’re not one of us. We excuse horrific acts of terror because after all they are part of a justified ideological struggle and one side or the other must deserve it somehow. The same is true for local gang violence, where the poor life choices of individuals naturally lead to their own demise.

For so many murders and acts of violence, we find ways to excuse or understand the actions such that we do not have to endure the pain of loss or human suffering. Consider the Sandy Hook shootings themselves. The six teachers who were killed were rightly praised as heroes, though I suspect they would not have received the honor they deserved had children not been included as victims. Furthermore, there was little sympathy for Nancy Lanza, the shooter’s mother and a victim in her own right, with one paper vilifying her saying “she created a monster.”

But when children are targeted, or more specifically our children are targeted, we lose all excuses. We cannot say that tragedies only happen “over there” in lawless countries when a shooting occurs in our own backyard. We cannot console ourselves as we do with adult murders that young children lived full lives. And with so many children being killed we cannot impose familiar narratives of ideology or racism which would otherwise explain or justify their senseless deaths.

For a few days this country overcame its apathy and jadedness and was unified in its sharing the morning of the needless loss of human life. Perhaps the sin of our generation is that it took the murders of 20 children to do so.

A Fair And Balanced Approach To Jewish Social Justice

A few months ago I wrote a short article for the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals’ new journal Conversations. The purpose of this journal is to promote communal dialogue on various issues facing the Jewish community. Unlike the Edah/Meorot journals, the journal is supposed to be more accessible than academic and so I was given two editorial conditions:1. keep it short and 2. no footnotes.

As longtime blog readers know, that last condition was a tough one to overcome.

At any rate, I’m posting my article “A Fair And Balanced Approach To Jewish Social Justice” and I plan on revisiting the motivations for the article at some later point.

Days Are Coming

Following up on the topic of conversions, it seems that 3 out of 4 religions agree that freedom to convert from or to another religion is a basic religious right.
However, when it comes to proselytizing, one should really have a good idea of the target audience or community. Fark picked up this story about Hassidim receiving missionizing DVD’s in the mail. As the article says in the last paragraph, “But theology aside, technology might prove a larger hurdle for Katz’s group. However appealing the packaging, most of the thousands of Kiryas Joel households that got the ‘Days of Moshiach’ DVD don’t have televisions or computers on which to view it.”
I can just see how one of the conversations went:

    “Don’t watch that thing! It’s kefira!”
    “Oh, and how do you know?”
    “Um…my wife’s third cousin isn’t so frum and he told me about it…yeah, that’s the ticket.”

The DVD is called Days Of Mashiach, innocuously enough, and if you’re interested here are some screenshots and streaming video.1

1. YUTOPIA takes no responsibility for anyone who converts due to watching this film. Come to think of it, how desperate is a religion when it actually wants members who are of the mental stability that they would change their faith based on a DVD? Unless of course, we’re talking about The Big Lebowsky in which case all bets are off.

Saw You At Trial

Just found this CNN article:

    A federal jury awarded as much as $434,000 to a Ukrainian woman who sued the Internet matchmaking service that set her up with the man who allegedly abused her after they wed.
    Nataliya Fox accused Encounters International of fraud and negligence, saying it should have screened its male clients and told her about a law that helps foreign nationals escape abusive relationships without fear of automatic deportation.
    Instead, Fox testified, agency owner Natasha Spivack told her to endure the alleged abuse or return to Ukraine.

I can’t say if I’d hold the agency responsible for background checks, since its relatively easy to lie on these things. However, the response to “endure” the abuse – especially when they could have easily provided her wth a way out – is so intolerable that I can’t disagree with the judgement.

The GNU Testament

If you were following Protocols a while ago, you might be familiar with Douglass Rushkoff and his recent book Nothing Sacred. I know I’m a little late with this, but there is one point of Rushkoff’s thought which I would like to address.1 Specifically, Rushkoff suggests a Judaism modeled after a popular software movement which he calls, “Open Source Judaism.” (OSJ)

According to Rushkoff:

An open source religion would work the same way as open source software development: it is not kept secret or mysterious at all. Everyone contributes to the codes we use to comprehend our place in the universe. We allow our religion to evolve based on the active participation of its people. We internalize and engineer Jewish laws and ideas as adults, rather than following them by rote, as children. We come to realize that the writings and ideas of Judaism are not set in stone, but invitations to inquire, challenge, and evolve. Together, as a community, we define Judaism as the ongoing resolution of our individual sensibilities.2

Superficially, OSJ is nothing more than a restatement of Reconstructionism. However, through his analogy to open source software, (OSS) Rushkoff actually offers a different model, one which requires its own analysis.

To understand OSJ, we must first understand the culture it’s supposed to emulate. As its name states, OSS programs’ code is “openly” published and is freely available to the public. This allows users to modify programs to suit their specific needs, add functions to the program, and find bugs or security holes.

However, OSS is more than just a programming model, but it is a culture unto itself. According to the GNU Foundation, OSS is about free software. By “free,” GNU primarily means autonomy. Licenses may not restrict the implementations of a program – a user may run a program in any way s/he sees fit. Users are free to study and modify the code to suit their needs. Although they advocate the ability to redistribute software, GNU insists, “‘Free software’ is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of ‘free’ as in ‘free speech,’ not as in ‘free beer.'”

With these freedoms, developers have created stable and secure operating systems, advanced web browsers, powerful graphic manipulators, and absurdly powerful text editors. Developers create projects and publish code on sites like Sourceforge where other programmers may download, test, and debug their programs. Developers, therefore, share their code with an entire community, the totality of which in turn promotes creativity and innovation.3

Since the strength of OSS is its dependence on the community’s voluntary contributions, its anti-model would be Microsoft. All of MS’s software is proprietary and available only through purchase. Normally, we would simply call this “capitalism.” But companies who choose themselves to MS software also commit to MS’s fickle licensing policies and costly forced upgrades.

Furthermore, MS refuses to release its code to the public and is constantly responding to several various security holes. That MS uses their ubiquity to create their own programming standards and blackmail other companies does not endear them to the public. Unlike the communal nature of OSS, MS’s culture dictates that MS is the supreme software vendor, and clients must only go through them.

As Eric S. Raymond writes, the differences between MS and OSS are comparable to a cathedral and a bazaar. The cathedral is hierarchical and monolithic whereas the bazaar is democratic and diverse. This distinction echos various denominations of Judaism which promote individual autonomy over institutional authority.

“Classic” Reconstructionism tries to preserve Jewish culture through evolution, and it operates on a macro-social level. Rushkoff claims that the only constant throughout Jewish history was evolution. Generation after generation modified Jewish theology and practice to better adapt to their world. In order to know the needs of the community, the religion depends on the members to participate and contribute. Furthermore, we allow the individual the freedom to “debug” someone else’s “code” or “hack” it such that it best suits himself. For example, Rushkoff created an Open Source Haggadah where people may contribute their own liturgy or rituals to the community. Individuals may use the exact submissions or further alter them as they deem necessary.

My critiques of Ruskfoff’s model come two different perspectives. As a (former) programmer, I find Rushkoff’s OSS analogy flawed. Although OSS is an open community, it succeeds through extensive quality control and programs are held to some objective standard. A program either works or it doesn’t. Once a program is functional, it may then be optimized for superior speed or resource management, or enhanced security as the case may be. Before a program can be useful to a community, it first must meet certain requirements of functionality and efficiency, and to some extent serve as an improvement over its predecessors. Even an “average” programmer will find it difficult to have his/her project “accepted” by the community. The programs which are assimilated into mainstream usage are most often written by superior developers.

OSJ has no such quality control, nor can it. Religion is not an objective science. But if there are no standards or rules of submissions, then the community has no mechanism of policing itself. If anyone can submit anything, and all submissions are legitimate, then OSJ runs the risk of intellectual hijackings. There is neither a system nor criteria for weeding out garbage. Furthermore, if in fact, everything is acceptable for OSJ, then it becomes tautological and subject to the Pluralism Equation.

I partially agree with Rushkoff’s model. Torah is “open source” in that the texts are accessible to everyone; it is neither in heaven nor across the sea (Deut. 30:12-13) and there is no hidden law. Torah is democratic in the sense that kings and water gatherers are all equally bound by the same laws. However, Rushkoff confuses the technical definition of “open source” with “modification.” In the computer world, OSS implies that the users have rights of modification. However, if one were to rewrite Apache web server such that it becomes a word processor, i.e. the primary function changes, s/he could no longer call it “Apache” – or if he did it would not have the same meaning.

Judaism may also change and evolve, but it must stay within certain parameters. Sages may have the authority of interpretation (Deut. 17:11), but even they are subject to its rules (B. Horayot 2a-b). The Torah is complete (Ps. 19:8) and although we have the free will modify some rituals in Judaism, once any commandment is removed, the system is no longer Torah (Deut. 13:1).

Orthodox Jews might be able to salvage something from Rushkoff’s model by reaffirming some objective standards. Following the OSS analogy, God should be the “project owner” who opens the project to the community. People may contribute but must follow certain rules of submission and modifications. Or to put it succinctly, the Torah’s source is open, but God retains the copyrights.

Waiting On A Friend

My previous post “The Harm In Being Nice” generated a great deal of feedback. Thanks to everyone who posted, IMed, e-mailed, voted, and threatened. Although some people missed the point, just about everyone contributed something positive to the discussion.

I’d like to address some of the issues raised in the subsequent correspondence. I tried to address the phenomenon of why women would want nice guys as “just friends” as opposed to a more serious relationship. I argued that when a guy is loyal, considerate, emotionally sensitive etc. the woman would have the primary effect of a relationship without the commitment, employing the metaphor of “why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free.”

This was just my attempt at explaining a phenomenon. Obviously, relationships are as complicated as the participants. Many people suggested contributing factors as “two sides of the same coin,” but the complexities more closely resemble AD&D dice. However, I couldn’t very well write about relationships with disclaimers every five sentences.1 That’s what followups are for.

Most people responded to the following scenario: woman breaks up with guy using the ever popular “you’re really nice, but…” line. Most of the time, this completely ends the relationship. My theory applies more to women who don’t want to date someone, but still want to maintain some friendship with the guy. I’m not saying that women should just continue dating someone just because. It’s possible the woman has her own legitimate reasons for not wanting to marry a guy, and she has her own reasons for not articulating them. I was taking the woman at face value: 1. that she thinks the guy is nice and 2. she just doesn’t “feel” it or see it going anywhere and that is why she is ending the relationship.

There could be any number of reasons why a woman wouldn’t want to continue dating a particular nice guy. She might not like the way he looks, they could have incompatible career goals, etc. Sometimes men come on way too strong which is also a turnoff. I also must stress that “niceness” is not a substitute for “personality.” Simply going through the motions of politeness just means you’ve been trained well – but it doesn’t say anything about who you are.2 Niceness might not cause a breakup, but niceness alone will not lead to marriage. If I may get biblical, sur mera must be followed by ase’ tov.

Can mixed friendships exist as healthy relationships? I think so under certain circumstances.3 Being able to talk to the other gender is not only useful for advice or different perspectives, but it also trains people to view the other gender as “people.” As early as high-school (perhaps earlier) the Orthodox world indoctrinates men and women about the dangers of temptation.4 The intent is admirable – to prevent rampant immorality and various other forms of sinning – and for the most part it succeeds (or at least better than the alternative). There is however an unintended consequence. By constantly emphasizing the avoidance of temptation, one is in fact placing temptation at the forefront. If every time I look at a woman I think, “must…avoid…temptation,” then I am really looking at the woman as a sex object to be avoided, rather than as a person.5

On the other hand, there can be downsides as well (aren’t there always). The hurt of the rejection will be proportional to the feelings felt by the rejected person. If these feelings are too strong, then a person might not be able to “get over” the rejection while maintaining a friendship. To use another personal example, there was a woman whom I liked and dated, and we broke up in the typical fashion. When I found that maintaining contact was too difficult for me emotionally, I withdrew. Recently, I was able to speak to her about a personal event,6 and she provided very useful insights.

As I mentioned, relationships are complicated and no single theory will account for all cases. However, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think about it and see what patterns have effected our own personal lives. For yet another perspective, see this salon article which comes courtesy of Dr. Manhattan.7

On that note, the poll results are in. With a whopping 68 people voting:
49% – Stay nice – just stop being such a wimp (33 votes)
43% – Stay nice – Something good will turn up eventually (29 votes)
6% – Get a complete attitude adjustment – might require mental reprogramming and/or lobotomy (4 votes)
3% – Stay nice – might not work for you, but why should everyone else lose out? (2 votes)

The clear majority says I should stay nice, with some discrepancy as to how or why. Some are pure optimists, while most voted that I should develop some sort of spine. I will start by not letting a silly internet poll determine my behavior. (I’ve been getting better at being nice without becoming a doormat and I will continue to do so).

I’ve also tracked down one of the people who suggested the lobotomy, and I’m looking for the others.

The final 3% of you are just selfish bastards.

1. And really, who reads footnotes?
2. Ignoring for now how long someone should give as a chance to “be him/herself”
3. Yes, I have seen When Harry Met Sally.
4. For more details and what some people are doing about it see End The Madness.
5. Before people start yelling at me about this, I’m not saying that we should let everything go. I’m just saying that there can be unintended consequences. When I was in Gruss a few years ago, R. Miller gave us mussar that married couples were too friendly with other’s spouses. He did not elaborate as to what “too friendly” meant, but I can assure nothing major happened. I think that this mentality reinforces how the people were raised in treating interactions with women as primarily being sexual.
6. The “.5” from the last post found this website.
7. Who ironically lives in the Bronx now.

The Harm In Being Nice

I’ve resisted posting things based on my personal life mostly because I don’t know who reads this site. (Or paradoxically, because I know exactly who reads this site). However, I think the following observations might be useful to enough loyal readers to warrant revealing part of my personal life to the public.
Skipping most of the back-story, I recently went out with someone. We had a total of two dates in the span of roughly three weeks1 and things were going relatively smoothly.2 This past Friday, I called her up to wish her a “Shabbat Shalom” and to shmooze for a bit. Long story short, after telling me how nice I am, what a great guy I am, and what a great time she had, she said she didn”t want to continue dating because she couldn”t see it going anywhere, or in her words, “I can”t see us raising grandchildren together.” 3
This is hardly the first time this has happened to me, and I think it”s happened to several other guys as well. We”re nice, considerate, otherwise great guys and perhaps what a person is looking for, but for some reason this isn’t enough.
This used to frustrate me greatly. Honestly, I don’t hold a grudge against anyone – everyone is entitled to make decisions which they feel will gring them the greatest happiness. However, being at U of C pretending to be an academic, I decided to analyze this phenomenon. And like all good pseudo-academics, we have to first define our terms. What makes a guy a “nice” guy” My experience is that generally they will have several of – but not limited to – the following characteristics: kind, polite, sensitive, considerate of others feelings and emotions, often funny, often intelligent, good sense of the world, and will treat someone with respect. Sounds like a “nice guy,” no? If you’re female, it might sound like a typical shidduch offer, and odds are you’d be turned off immediately. If you meet someone like this in a normal setting, you might like him, but only as a friend – even though he might be a perfect match for you.4
Why then is it that the nice guys so often finish last? How can being nice actually be a turn off and harm someone”s chances for a meaningful relationship? I think the answer can be found in an old adage which usually has a different connotation:

“Why buy the cow, when you can get the milk for free?”

The usual interpretation is that since men are only interested in one thing. Once they get it, they would see no need for a commitment i.e. marriage. I think the same logic holds true for women. Assume the popular myth that women want an emotional connection of some sort. If there is a “nice guy” around, she can the emotional support she needs from someone without having to commit. She may be able to confide in him, have him work around her apartment, help her with just about any crisis, and she doesn”t have to make any sort of commitment back to him. The guy will obviously put up with it, because after all, he’s “nice” and this is what nice people do.
So if there’s a person who is willing to do all this for you – with nothing in return, why would you consider a serious relationship with this person” You can go find someone else who is cooler, richer, better looking, or anything else and still have that “nice” person around when you need him or if nothing else works out.
Cow, Milk, Free.
I should note that there can be exceptions – in my case roughly 1.5 exceptions.5 But overall, I see that there can be a few options and I”m opening this up to discussion. What should people like me – us “nice guys” – do to get out of this?
The poll is open and will be for about two weeks. Comment as necessary below.
Poll Has Been Closed
See the followup post: Waiting On A Friend
The poll has now been closed, You may still view the results or if you’re too lazy to click the link:
43% – Stay nice – Something good will turn up eventually (29 votes)
3% – Stay nice – might not work for you, but why should everyone else lose out” (2 votes)
49% – Stay nice – just stop being such a wimp (33 votes)
6% – Get a complete attitude adjustment – might require mental reprogramming and/or labotomy (4 votes)

1. We were supposed to have had a third date sometime in there, but I got stood up.
2. Intentionally omitting details.
3. Which reminded me of the most comical breakup line I once got from someone in Israel: “I can”t go out with you anymore, because if I keep speaking to you, it would be bad.” How true. How very true.
4. I’m not talking about guys who come on too strong. I can understand how guys who throw themselves at women aren’t terribly attractive, and could probably use the system
5. No, I will not elaborate.

MSNBC’s Kabbalah Corner

Does anyone else find interesting how much MSNBC covers the new-age Kabbalah craze? It could just be the standard mocking of stupid celebrities. Not only are people like Madonna and Britney prime journalistic fodder, but they won’t have to worry about the Kabbalah center suing them into oblivion for defamaiton unlike some other “religious” institutions.1
For example, in a recent Newsweek interview which appeared on MSNBC:

When Spears talks about the South Asian musical influences on ?In the Zone,? she says she?s ?been into a lot of Indian spiritual religions.? When asked if one of them is Hinduism, she says, ?What?s that? Is it like kabbalah??

So she’s not exactly a religion major.2 It’s possible she has some insightful comments about comparative religion. I doubt it considering her teacher has some trouble keeping her own Kabbalah straight. See for example, MSNBC’s review of Madonna’s new children’s book, Mr. Peabody’s Apples:

In her introduction, Madonna explains that ?Mr. Peabody?s Apples? is based on a 300-year-old Ukrainian tale called ?The Baad Shem Tov.? [sic] She says her instructor in Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, first turned her on to the story, which aims to demonstrate the power of words.

This could be a simple typo on the part of Madonna or MSNBC. Frankly I’m curious if Madonna knows something we don’t (undoubtedly she does, but regarding Jewish History. On second thought, scratch that too). Did the Baal Shem Tov have an evil twin? Or maybe this guy was a Hassid from the ‘Hood?
At any rate, I’m sure MSNBC will continue to humiliate the these two for many months to come. They just make it too easy.

1. What, you’d think I’d mention them by name? They scare me.
2. But a poster child for not learning Kabbalah until one turns 40. Incidentally, Madonna easilly meets the age requirement.