Yeshiva U listens to stories of ‘Being Gay’

There was a tremendous amount of media coverage in 2006 when Conservative Judaism opened its doors to gay rabbis and gay marriage.

Reform Judaism had already done so. Orthodoxy never would.

The move by the Conservative world was seen as a small but meaningful social shift (in a much larger religious and social drama that continues).

But the Jewish Week has a fascinating story about an event at Yeshiva University that shows that even some elements of the modern Orthodox world are grappling with how to face the unsettling question of homosexuality in the modern culture.

Which is not to say that there is any talk of accepting gay rabbis or gay marriage or gay anything.

But a gay rabbi and several gay students and alumni were given an opportunity to speak about their lives and the unique challenges they face as Orthodox Jews. The program was called “Being  Gay in the Modern Orthodox World.”

One student said: “Hashem made me gay. My test is not that Hashem made me gay and that I have to become straight, but my test is to live with it.”

Some 600-800 people attended. “The crowd was respectful, listening quietly to the speakers’ remarks, interrupting only for applause, and laughter at the men’s humorous remarks,” according to the JW.

The Jewish Week notes: “Separate statements issued by President Richard Joel, and by leading members of the rabbinical school’s Talmudic faculty, distanced themselves from the event while not outright condemning it.”

I can’t seem to get to the Jewish Week website today, but a cache version is HERE.

So what now?

A statement from top leaders at Yeshiva said this: “Homosexual activity constitutes an abomination. As such, publicizing or seeking legitimization even for the homosexual orientation one feels runs contrary to Torah. In any forum or on any occasion when appropriate sympathy for such discreet individuals is being discussed, these basic truths regarding homosexual feelings and activity must be emphatically re-affirmed.”

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Have a happy and safe New Year’s Eve.

Jewish community now grappling with money-laundering headlines

Days after the news broke of the Syrian Jewish community’s alleged involvement in the New Jersey Corruption Sweep to end New Jersey Corruption Sweeps (for now), Jewish voices are addressing the ugliness of it all.

On Aish.com, an Orthodox site, Rabbi Yitz Greenman writes about the power of greed. He writes, in part:

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We live in America and the law of the land states that one is innocent until proven guilty. Let us not assume guilt. But, if in the unfortunate event that the news turns out to be true and some of these people are proven guilty, many will ask: How can this be?

Not to sound callous, jaded, crude or insensitive, but the answer to me is that such a situation is not so difficult to imagine. It’s all a function of greed and jealousy. In fact, maybe we should ask the question differently: How come it’s such a rarity? Why doesn’t this happen more often?

We live in a very materialistic society, comprised of have and have-nots. No matter what a person has in our day and age, it is literally impossible for someone to “have it all.” Coupled with the most dazzling ads that Madison Avenue inundates us with daily, everyone is trained from early childhood to see themselves as “have-nots.” I don’t have this, that and the other thing. This creates an environment of lack and dependency on things.

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The Rabbinical  Council of America, which represents Orthodox rabbis, released this statement today:

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The Rabbinical Council of America expresses its deep dismay over the recent charges brought by the United States Attorney General against numerous individuals, including several prominent rabbis. We are appalled at the allegations which, if true, violate the letter and the spirit of Jewish law, decency, good citizenship, and the norms of our great society.

Jewish Law has always emphasized the importance of observing and respecting the laws of the land. They are essential for our shared wellbeing. No individual stands above the law. If a citizen violates the law then he must be subject to the penalties imposed by the legal system of our great country. Nonetheless, we must all keep in mind that those accused are entitled to a presumption of innocence and due process.

Members of the Syrian Orthodox Community have been particularly affected by these allegations, and the stereotypes that have arisen as a result in recent days.The RCA wishes to extend its support to the Syrian Jewish community and its rabbis. They are an honorable, pious, and charitable community, led by many distinguished rabbis. The alleged misdeeds of the few should not be used against the innocent many. We join with our brethren in the Syrian community and with our fellow Jews in praying that the community find the strength to weather this storm, and that they restore themselves to function as the great community they have always been.

We are committed as rabbinic leaders for ourselves and our communities to serve as positive role models for all of our fellow Americans. We pledge to do our best in the days ahead so that the entire Jewish community can continue to be a model for all of our fellow Americans as law-abiding and ethically responsible citizens, striving to live in accordance with the highest religious and civic standards of justice and morality.

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And the Jewish Week has extensive coverage of the whole affair, including anger in the Orthodox community at the Jewish informant whose cooperation was key to authorities bringing down the alleged money-laundering scheme.

Mark Charendoff, president of the Jewish Funders Network and an Orthodox Jew, writes a column in which he offers harsh criticisms of some within his own community: “Is it possible that there is something in the Orthodox community in general and the haredi community in particular that creates fertile ground for this type of fraud? I’ve too often witnessed, here and in Israel, a perverse notion that we few who feel bound by the laws of God are free to flout the laws of man. That the seriousness with which we hold halacha (Jewish law) forces us to view state law as trite, flawed — unimportant at best, a nuisance at worst.”

Harsh.

And Jewish Week boss Gary Rosenblatt writes about what the news means for relations within the Jewish world. He says, in part:

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Many Orthodox Jews refuse to acknowledge that their less observant brethren can be serious about their religious and spiritual lives, and see them more as a threat to continuity than as sharing the path to a Jewish future. Better not to associate with them, some rabbis say, for fear of appearing to legitimize their beliefs. And there is a distinct element of schadenfreude among Reform, Conservative and Modern Orthodox Jews on reading of financial and sexual abuses within the haredi community, a sense of satisfaction in seeing those alleged holier-than-thou Jews brought low, shown to be as flawed as the rest of us.

But there is plenty of guilt to go around, and the front-page photos of bearded rabbis being led away in handcuffs represents a chillul HaShem, a desecration of God’s name, for us all.

Is ‘witness’ different than ‘proselytism?’

I posted something recently about the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference issuing a statement to clarify the Catholic Church’s relationship to the Jewish people — primarily to note the ongoing Catholic responsibility to witness to the truth of the faith.

The bishops issued the statement because of concerns that a paper issued by Catholic and Jewish leaders in 2002 had left the impression that the Catholic Church, by recognizing the ongoing Jewish covenant with God, had resigned its role to witness to the Jewish people.

Yesterday, the Bishops Conference released a fascinating statement about a June 25 meeting in NYC between Catholic and Orthodox Jewish leaders, part of an ongoing dialogue.

The statement, a press release actually, was very blunt about Orthodox Jewish unhappiness with the bishops’ clarifying statement.

Granted, this stuff may be too “inside baseball” for many. But some (including me) are fascinated by interreligious dialogue and the very nuanced challenges that often arise.

Here is a key hunk of the Bishops Conference statement:

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At the June 25 meeting, David Berger, Ph.D., head of the Jewish Studies Department at Yeshiva College, New York City, cited “grave” concerns of some in the Jewish community about the Note, which was prepared by the USCCB’s Committee on Doctrine and Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.

Orthodox Jews can tolerate any Christian view on the necessity of faith in Jesus Christ as savior of all, but they cannot agree to participate in an interfaith dialogue that is a cover for proselytism, Berger said.

The Note affirmed that interreligious dialogue involves “a mutually enriching sharing of gifts,” but also asserted that giving witness to the following of Christ is implicit in every faithful encounter with persons of other religious convictions.

Berger and the other Jewish participants asked if the “implicit witnessing to Christ” means, in effect, a subtle attempt to convert Jews to Christianity, which would render interreligious dialogue with Catholics illegitimate and “dangerous” from an Orthodox Jewish standpoint. “We take apostasy very seriously,” he said, referring to the abandonment of Judaism for another religion.

Father James Massa, Executive Director for the Secretariat of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the USCCB, assured participants that interreligious dialogue for the Catholic bishops is never about proselytism or any coercive methods that would lead a person to abandon his or her religious convictions.

“The important term in this discussion is ‘witness,’” Father Massa said. “As Catholics involved in a dialogue of truth, we cannot help but give witness to Christ, who, for us, is synonymous with truth. Without acknowledging our indebtedness to God’s revelation in Christ, we cannot sit at the table and speak as Christians about how we arrive at notions of justice, compassion and building up the common good—the very values our interreligious dialogues seek to foster.”

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I haven’t seen any statements from either of the two Orthodox Jewish groups that participated.

This could be a good time to read John Allen’s recent column, “Hard Truths About Jews and Catholics,” which raises a lot of interesting issues about the state of Catholic-Jewish relations (and how to move on from here).

Have a great 4th (whether that means today, tomorrow or both).

Conversion popular — but not always easy

Americans love to switch faiths.

The new Pew Forum study shows that 28% have left the faith of their childhood (and if you count switching brands of Protestantism, the percentage soars to 44).

But for the small numbers who convert to Judaism, well, things sure get complicated.

The different branches of Judaism — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist — have their own standards for conversion. Who acknowledges whose conversions has long been a tricky question.

The question periodically becomes quite serious because of the reluctance of the Jewish establishment in Israel — which is uniformly Orthodox — to recognize non-Orthodox conversions to Judaism.

But even within the world of Orthodoxy, where there are multiple religious gradations between “ultra Orthodox” and “modern Orthodox,” there are disagreements over the standards for conversion (and who can oversee conversions).

In recent years, the Israeli rabbinic establishment has sometimes looked askew at conversions overseen by Orthodox rabbis in the U.S.

A few days ago, the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest Orthodox rabbis group in the U.S., announced that it was establishing a network of rabbinical courts to oversee conversions. The statement said:

The network, established with the enthusiastic agreement of the RCA membership at large, creates uniform standards of Orthodox conversion. The network will benefit genuine converts and their offspring, by facilitating their acceptance in Jewish communities around the world.

In other words, in Israel.

The new Jewish Week reports that there is a bit of discord of whether the RCA capitulated to the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate in Israel by adopting conversion standards that require ultra-Orthodox observance on the part of would-be converts.

The report says:

basil-herring-pic_medium.jpgThe newly unified conversion standards may be most demanding for those who are adopting a child and want him or her converted under Orthodox auspices. They will be required to have their family be completely observant of the commandments — for example, living within walking distance of an Orthodox synagogue so that they can attend on the Sabbath without driving, and must commit to having their child educated for 12 years in an Orthodox Jewish day school.

But what if the child needs to leave the day school because it is not meeting his educational needs or because the family can no longer afford tuition?

“If there was clear indication that the commitment was a real one, not just posturing to fool the court, but that subsequently they were unable to follow through for whatever reason, that does not undo the conversion,� said (RCA Executive Vice President) Rabbi (Basil) Herring. “Everything here is in the details.�

The overall goal, said Rabbi Herring (pictured), “is to give converts a measure of assurance that when they go beyond the system they will not be doubted, alienated and hurt� by questions about their legitimacy as Jews.

(Picture: RCA)