Monday, July 30, 2012

Eliminate Denominations - Objection #2

In last week's Washington Jewish Week, two letters were printed in response to my letter "Eliminate Denominations". Feel free to look at them here. I responded to the first of them in great detail here. In this post, I  reproduce the text of the second objection, followed by my detailed response.

A people divided

My Rockville neighbor, Rabbi Joshua Maroof, surely wrote his letter ("Eliminate denominations," Letters, WJW, July 12) about eliminating Ashkenazic denominations with several tongues in cheek. He surely knows that Jews have been a people divided - often creatively - through history by "denominations" or movements or parties.

When were we not? The biblical text tells us we were divided even under Moses. The Pharisees opposed the Sadducees, the House of Hillel and Shamai, the same, Chasidim and Mitnagdim scuffled more recently and on and on to this day. Thank God for options and alternatives enriching our lives with choices, however faulty and inadequate they all are.

And all admit to being imperfect save for the Orthodox who self-proclaim to be authentic. Besides, Reform Judaism, it should be remembered, predates Orthodox Judaism. These "denominations" representing critical differences are our profoundest strength: one people, a multiplicity of ideas and religious sensibilities.

Rabbi Maroof calls Jewish Orthodoxy unaltered. He cannot be serious. Judaism has always altered. Orthodoxy as well. That's what makes Judaism authentic and alive. But what kind of model does Orthodoxy represent - whether Ashkenazic or Sephardic - when its understanding of Judaism chains women as agunot to nasty husbands who won't do the right thing by their separated wives; manifests as a denomination that treats women as second-class Jews with no aliyot, no ordination, as acquired property in marriage, segregated from families at shul? Never mind attitudes towards non-heterosexuals.

As for Israel's Rabbinate, the state ought not employ and pay salaries to any clergy except military chaplains and hospital chaplains as in the U.S. and other democratic countries. The greater the separation of state and religion, the better. Even for Israel.

My Response

Like Mr. Finkel's, Rabbi Brenner's letter is replete with misrepresentations of Jewish history and tradition. He points to divisions between Hillel and Shammai, Hassidim and Mitnagdim, Sadduccees and Pharisees, etc., as examples of “denominations” that predate our contemporary ones.

Disagreement, difference of opinion and division into schools of thought have all, indeed, characterized Jewish life since the proverbial days of old. However, it is imperative that we distinguish between the existence of schools with variant interpretations of canonical texts and law and the emergence of movements that dispute the Divine origin, truth or validity of those texts or that law. The former are part and parcel of traditional Judaism; the latter are separatists from traditional Judaism (the Sadduccees, incidentally, would fit in the latter category as well.)

Rabbi Brenner then writes, “But what kind of model does Orthodoxy represent - whether Ashkenazic or Sephardic - when its understanding of Judaism chains women as agunot to nasty husbands who won't do the right thing by their separated wives; manifests as a denomination that treats women as second-class Jews with no aliyot, no ordination, as acquired property in marriage, segregated from families at shul? Never mind attitudes towards non-heterosexuals.”
 One may feel uncomfortable with certain aspects of Torah law, but criticizing the laws does not take away from the fact that those who maintain them are, in fact, upholding the original principles of Judaism as represented in the Written and Oral traditions.

Shifting the argument to whether you find the way the Torah structures divorce, the Talmud's laws that distinguish between genders with regard to prayer roles, or the Torah's clear prohibition of homosexuality to be agreeable to your "sensibilities" evades the question of whether or not your personal philosophy represents authentic Judaism.

Feel however you wish, but do not claim that the sum total of religious practices with which you are comfortable equates to some kind of "better" Judaism. Judaism's teachings on these issues are quite well-defined, and it is the Sephardim and so-called "Orthodox" Jews who have preserved them for generations. It is Judaism you dislike, not the traditionalists who have clung to it.

A few points of factual clarification:
First, nowhere in the Torah or Talmud are specific "attitudes" toward homosexuals legislated or promoted. The Torah prohibits homosexual relations but does not view homosexuality as any different than, for example, desecrating the Sabbath. Nowhere is it written that we should treat practicing homosexuals any differently than we treat those who fail to observe the Sabbath. Put simply, there is no correlation whatsoever between forbidding an activity and promoting negative or hateful attitudes toward individuals who engage in that activity.

Second, women are not "segregated from families" in the synagogue. Men and women sit separately in traditional synagogues just as they stood separately in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The reason is to remove the distractions that inevitably attend mingling with members of the opposite sex. If anything, in non-traditional synagogues in which principles of modest dress are not observed, there is an even greater need to separate men and women so that decorum and focus on prayer can be maintained. After all, prayer is not a social event. It is a time to commune with God. It shouldn't matter who is sitting next to you. And if it does, that's why you need a divider in your synagogue.

Third, I fail to see why women not being given aliyot means that they are second class citizens. Judaism is a religion of responsibilities, obligations and service of God, not service of the self. We should not be seeking or promoting the "honor" of receiving aliyot or being ordained as rabbis.

Those who are obligated to read from the Torah according to Jewish law are the ones who receive aliyot in order to fulfill their obligation, not to demonstrate their superiority or their status as "first class" citizens. Those who are not obligated should have no need for it. 

Similarly, those obligated to teach Torah to the community and lead services according to Jewish law are the ones who need to be ordained in order to qualify them for this position. One is ordained to fulfill these duties for the congregation, not in order to become the recipient of of honor and accolades from them. Since women are not charged with these specific responsibilities (they have many others that men don't have), they should have no need for ordination.

If women feel a need for ordination, it is because they wrongly perceive the title of rabbi as a mark of distinction and privilege that is being denied to them. Instead, they should see it as a tool that allows men to fulfill certain religious obligations that women don't necessarily have. 

Fourth, nowhere in the Torah, Talmud or codes does it say that women are acquired as property in marriage. That is simply absurd. I would urge Rabbi Brenner to more carefully study the laws of marriage and divorce in the relevant rabbinic sources where he will discover that this claim is neither fair nor accurate.

Moreover, in the course of his learning he will hopefully come to understand why religious divorce proceeds according to the principles he saw fit to denigrate in his letter. There is rhyme, reason and logic to everything in Judaism, but it takes many years of serious study for one to recognize  and appreciate that fact.


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