Thursday, October 27, 2016

Biblical law?

You remember the cases:

  • The county clerk who refused to issue licenses for same-sex marriages.
  • The bakers who refused to decorate a cake for a same-sex wedding.
They refused on the grounds that their religions were opposed to same-sex marriage.
Both lost in court. The county clerk in Kentucky defied a decision of the United States Supreme Court, claiming a religious exemption from the fulfillment of her public duty. The Oregon bakers claimed religious exemption from civil-rights law.


In contrast, Jehovah’s Witnesses won the right, during World War II, not to say the Pledge of Allegiance in school, and Quakers are permitted to “affirm” rather than “swear” when testifying in court.


The difference was that the Jehovah’s Witnesses objected only to the Pledge, not to school in general, and the Quakers only to swearing oaths, not to courts in general. The religious exemption is a narrow one.


In contrast, the Kentucky clerk had no religious objection to the issuance of marriage licenses—if she had, problems would have arisen on her first day in office. And the Oregon bakers claimed no religious objection to decorating any and all wedding cakes.


This fall, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights recently released a report criticizing religious exemptions that infringe on civil  rights. The report concluded that religious exemptions have the potential to “significantly infringe” on a person’s civil rights.


The chair of the commission, Martin Castro, said that  phrases like “religious liberty” and “religious freedom” have become “code words” for discrimination. 


“Religious liberty was never intended to give one religion dominion over other religions, or a veto power over the civil rights and civil liberties of others,” Castro wrote in his statement. “However, today, as in the past, religion is being used as both a weapon and a shield by those seeking to deny others equality.”


A weapon and a shield. Many of us thought that the Kentucky clerk’s motivation was not to avoid participation in even the paperwork for a same-sex marriage, but the hope of preventing the marriage altogether. 


The report recommended that “federal and state courts, lawmakers, and policy-makers at every level must tailor religious exceptions to civil liberties and civil rights protections as narrowly as applicable law requires.” 


In other words, the report opposed religious exemptions that would protect one person’s religious views by curtailing the rights of another .


Some of those who oppose limits on religious exemptions use the (frivolous, in my opinion) example of a kosher or halal butcher who refuses an order for pork. But the very definition of a kosher or halal butcher includes not selling pork. The parallel example would have to be a kosher or halal butcher who sells kosher meat to the public, except to certain customers with rights protected by court decisions or civil-rights law. 


For those in America who want to impose a specific, usually conservative Christian, religious view on the entire country, the parallel would be this: imagine that Jews came to hold a majority of seats in a state or, more likely, local government (there are places in New York where this is true) and used their majority to prohibit the sale of pork or shellfish, or to ban driving on Saturday.


Thus, when people tell me that they want the United States to follow “Biblical law,” I’m always tempted to ask them, “Have you stopped eating bacon yet?”

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Whose lives matter?

In June I was part of a group of Jewish teachers visiting the Center for Humanity and Holocaust Education in Cincinnati.

The Center houses a small museum, focusing on the experiences of Holocaust survivors and liberators who later lived in Cincinnati. Its main function, however, is outreach to secular educators, especially teachers in public and Catholic schools. It is somewhat unusual for a group of Jewish educators to attend one of its seminars.

Some of us were distressed by a forced-choice exercise in which each participant had to choose one of six listed reasons for teaching about the Holocaust. Although all six reasons were valid, not one of them mentioned the six million Jews who had been killed. We felt that, in its zeal to apply learning from the Holocaust to contemporary situations, the Center had gone too far in universalizing the history.

Our reactions there helped me to understand the mixed responses to the “Black Lives Matter” slogan. When people try to replace the slogan with “All Lives Matter”—which is true—they deny the experiences of Black Americans.

Perhaps this is because when a white person hears “Black Lives Matter” he or she may interpret it as “white lives don’t matter” and “my life doesn’t matter.” But when a black person hears “All Lives Matter,” it may come across as “black lives don’t matter as much.”

Here’s a helpful illustration. If you go to the emergency room with a broken arm, you don’t want the doctor to say, “All bones matter.” You want the doctor to treat the bone that is broken, not the ones that aren’t.

Meanwhile, the Black Lives Matter movement had adopted a platform with an anti-Israel plank. Why the movement needed to adopt any platform, and why it needed to involve itself in the Middle East, is impossible to explain. Nevertheless, regardless of any issues we have with the movement, we must say that black lives matter.

Although my group objected to the omission of the Jewish victims from the six choices, all teachers attending a seminar would already know that six million Jews, constituting the largest group of Nazi victims, were killed.

They would also know that there were other victims, including ethnic minorities such as the Roma and Sinti, opponents of the Nazi regime including German communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Polish civilians, and the physically or mentally infirm. A display in the Cincinnati museum lists the total of non-Jewish victims as six million, including Red Army prisoners of war who were executed.

It could be argued that we sometimes efface history by portraying ourselves as the principal—or even the only—victims of Nazi murder. However, I believe that, were it not for Hitler’s extreme hatred of Jews, the mass killing system might never have been created.

Some Jewish organizations, especially the Anti-Defamation League, have sought to keep other campaigns of genocide from being recognized. In particular, the ADL refused for many years to acknowledge the murder of 1.5 million Armenians by Turkish forces in 1915 as genocide. Worse, these organizations lobbied Congress to keep the U.S. government from recognizing it.

The reasons for this were murky. Pressure from the government of Israel may have been a factor, because Israel had a secret military alliance with Turkey. Risk of offending Turkey would also concern the United States, which has military bases in Turkey. It’s also possible that Jewish groups felt that acknowledging the Armenian genocide would detract from the memory of the Shoah.

In May of this year, however, the executive director of the ADL, Jonathan Greenblatt, wrote, “What happened to the Armenian people was unequivocally genocide.”

Greenblatt went on to say, “We believe that remembering and educating about any genocide—Armenian, the Holocaust, Bosnia, Rwanda, and others—is a necessary tool to prevent future tragedies. . . . That is why I am speaking out today and why we would support US recognition of the Armenian Genocide.”

That sounds slightly, but only slightly, like “all genocides matter”—which is true. But it specifically acknowledged the genocide in Armenia. When some of us proclaim, “All lives matter,” do we mean “including black lives”?

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

First night, second night

In the Diaspora, it's typical that traditional Jews celebrate an additional day of each holy day (except Yom Kippur). The custom of Reform Jews is not to celebrate these additional days. Many Reconstructionist Jews also don't celebrate additional days, nor are they celebrated by most Israelis (except Rosh Hashanah).

At Passover, this means that liberal Jews feel obligated to participate in a seder only on one night. The Conservative movement in the United States holds that a seder is obligatory for both the first night and the second night. As a result, many Conservative congregations hold a community seder at the synagogue on the second night--originally, at least, to encourage second-night observance.

Some Reform congregations also hold a community seder on the second night, not because they believe that second-night observance is required, but as a community event. My unaffiliated congregation holds one on the second night, a custom inherited from its Reform predecessor, not its Conservative predecessor.

This year, one family that I invited to my home for the first night of Passover declined the invitation, saying that they had made a commitment to participate in a secular event that night. The family identifies as Reform, and feels obligated to attend only one seder. It's OK with them if that's on the second night.

So I wonder: is this another case in which a communal observance undermines home observance? There has been a general tendency in Reform to shift religious life from the home to the temple, to the point that for some of us, what used to be home observances can only be celebrated in the temple. Are some Conservative Jews, maybe not feeling a strong need to have a seder two nights in a row, skipping the first night in favor of the second?

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Cut off

Johnny Carson, in his Art Fern persona, used to joke about the Slauson Cutoff. (“Take the Slauson Cutoff. Cut off your slauson.”) Now, the Slauson Cutoff actually exists. It’s a freeway stub in Los Angeles that would have been part of a freeway parallel to Slauson Avenue, except that most of it was never built.

In Jewish thought, “cut off” has a different resonance. Several places in the Torah speak of being “cut off” (karet) as the consequence of certain sins. In general, these are sins between a person and God, including matters of ritual observance, not those that directly affect other people. But what does it mean to be “cut off”?

In Exodus 31:14, it’s equated with death: if you desecrate the Sabbath, “you will surely die for any who do work in it, that soul is to be cut off from its people.” Traditional commentators have interpreted karet as premature death, or as being cut off from the people of Israel.

A class of which I’m a member has recently been studying this, and many of us were troubled by it. To begin, the idea that any and all of the listed sins results in premature death does not accord with our own experiences—unless, perhaps, you believe that the natural  human life span really is as long as some of the figures given in the Torah. Nor do we observe that those of us who commit those sins are cut off from the Jewish people, at least not in the sense of ostracism or shunning. 

Although my father died young, I don’t think that, say, smoking on Shabbat was the cause. On the other hand, I do suspect that smoking contributed to his early death.  (What really bothers me is that he had stopped once, on medical instructions, but later resumed.)

Coming from a liberal Jewish background, I tend to see all ritual observances as matters of choice. I am not shomer Shabbat, and I am only shomer kashrut at home--away from home I'm merely zocher (mindful of) kashrut. I’m relatively thorough about Passover observance (eating chametz during Passover is one of the sins that leads to karet), but I see that as my choice, not a “God’ll get you” matter.

What troubled me most in our class sessions was the mechanistic and legalistic way our tradition approaches karet. The texts, both Biblical and rabbinic, see it as the inevitable consequence of any of the sins that the Torah says lead to it. But this isn't science: it's not demonstrably true, and any mechanism is unknown.

As a teacher, I wouldn’t use that approach with students, and not only because we see so many examples in which the specified sin doesn't appear to lead to the specified punishment. I don't think it’s my role to make my students feel like bad Jews.

Instead, I see the rabbinic discussions of karet as a theoretical construct. The Gemara contains many detailed discussions of practices that, in the time of the Talmudic rabbis, were no longer possible, and the rabbis seem to take those just as seriously as those that could still be carried out. 

While this may have derived from the hope that the Temple would be rebuilt and the practices could be resumed, and it also fits with the contemporary yeshiva practice of studying such rules as a substitute for performing the rituals, I understand the rabbinic discussions as Torah lishmah, study for its own sake, and as expressions of intellectual curiosity. 

In class, many of us seemed to understand karet as being “cut off from God,” a reversible state. In the modern world, it’s possible to see it as a metaphor for depression. Who has not, at some time in life, felt distant from God, from family, from society? 

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Good for Jews?

Is it good for Jews? That was the question my grandparents asked about any development in politics or world affairs.

Two generations later, we felt more secure and were more likely to ask, Is it good for Israel? This came to the forefront after the Yom Kippur war in 1972, and even more when Israel was criticized for continuing to hold land won in 1967.


Today we encounter situations in which what might be good for the State of Israel might be bad for Jews in the diaspora. Perhaps we are uncomfortable with actions by the Israeli government and feel that they reflect badly on us. (My grandparents would have asked, What will the goyim think?) Or perhaps we think that policies that might be necessary in the short term will be harmful in the long term.


The situation in United States politics is, to say the least, confusing. On one hand, we have a Jewish candidate for president who expresses support for Israel, but whose religious identity is weak. 


On the other hand, we have a Christian candidate who defends Israel at every turn, but whose reason for loving Israel strikes us as  unsavory. Some conservative Christians support Israel because they believe that the existence of the State of Israel is necessary for a future Armageddon in which most Jews will be tortured and killed.


The most extreme form of that belief also holds that Hitler was doing God’s work: that the Holocaust was to punish us for not accepting Jesus. And at least one clergyman who proclaims exactly that has endorsed the candidate who appears to be the strongest supporter of Israel.


So we have a problem: should we vote for the candidate who may be the strongest support of Israel, but whose support stems from a belief that we must consider anti-Jewish? Is that good for Jews?


Speaking only for myself, I hope that the government of Israel doesn’t try to influence the U.S. elections. In 1960, John F. Kennedy was able to persuade voters that he didn’t take orders from the Pope. Everyone knows that most of us don’t take orders from rabbis. But would we be able to persuade other Americans that we don’t take orders from, say, Benjamin Netanyahu?


Again speaking only for myself, I would not be able to support a candidate who I thought was hostile to Israel, nor could I support a candidate whose personal religious views I considered anti-Jewish.


And once again speaking only for myself, I’m glad that Election Day isn’t this month.