Monday, January 11, 2010

Conversion, Refusing Orders and Expanding Halacha

It may have been a far cry from sex, drugs and rock and roll, but some of the best days of my youth were spent at summer camp. Bnei Akiva may not have trumped the street-cred tables, but it energized and educated, created life long friends, and inspired generations of youth in idealism and love of Israel.

It seems strange to think back to it – the bog tents (these were the days before portaloos); the standing on benches singing our hearts out; the demanding of the camp song ‘(which we wanted ‘now’); and the unashamed chanting of our motto ‘The Land of Israel, the People of Israel, according to the Torah of Israel.’

I recently thought back to part of that phrase ‘the Land of Israel according to the Torah of Israel’ in the context of the controversy surrounding the statements made by

Rav Eliezer Melamed of the Har Bracha Hesder Yeshiva, who called for religious soldiers to refuse to evacuate outposts and settlements as it contradicts Jewish law.

Other rabbis from the moderate nationalist camp (yes, one does exist) were more or less ambivalent – torn between wanting to criticise Melamed without simultaneously turning him into a martyr. But I was particularly struck by a statement from Rav Yoel Bin-Nun, who argued against what he termed Melamed’s ‘politicization of Halacha’, or in other words, expanding the area of issues in the public sphere about which Halacha has an opinion on.

Interestingly, the Har Bracha story comes only weeks after
Finance Minister Yaacov Neeman expressed his wish for Halacha to become an integral part of the law of the State of Israel.

Last week meanwhile, my Tel Aviv Shiur group was treated to one final session by Maayan before her and Einav (temporarily) move to Hong Kong. The topic at hand was conversion (particularly relevant in light of the recent JFS case) but it was conversion with a twist.

Our discussion focussed on the
analysis by Eliezer Berkovits who argued that the issue isn’t simply about applying the written Halachic principle (which in the case of Conversion means accepting all the Mitzvot, and immersion in a Mikva) but of considering other less tangible - but no less important - Halachic principles as well, such as the importance of national unity, the love of the Jewish people and the dignity of each individual.

What interested me was that despite coming from completely different standpoints, Melamed, Neeman and Berkovits are in some way all promoting the expansion of our understanding of Halacha.

But whereas the former want to expand Halacha’s role in discussing (currently ‘secular’) issues in the public sphere, Berkovits wants to use values currently in the public sphere (like human dignity and justice) to expand our understanding of the principles of Halacha.

And it got me thinking that perhaps the problem of the Har Bracha case is not the so called ‘politicization of Halacha’ but the politicization of a particular brand of it;

A narrow, nationalist stream which focuses on the written word rather than the spirit behind it;

One which trumps the value of land over that of democracy.

One which views individual human rights as an alien concept to the body of Judaism.

One which focuses on the
importance of destroying one’s enemy in wartime rather than protecting civilians and being concerned over spilling innocent blood.

And perhaps it’s this brand of Halacha, rather than Halacha per se which is the problem...

The nostalgia for the days of my (misspent?) youth will probably continue for a while, although I probably would still proudly proclaim the ideal of living one’s life according to ‘Torat Yisrael.’

I just wish that those who propagate a more inclusive, creative, engaging, tolerant, non-xenophobic understanding of our religious texts would win the ongoing battle over how to interpret them.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Gays, Top Trumps and Whether God Hates Shrimp

For those cool kids (like me) who spent their primary school days playing Top Trumps, ‘abomination’ probably means a sea-green hulk like monster with tight speedos, weighing in at 980lbs, and possessing superpowers of 98. For everyone else meanwhile (and believe me you missed out), the word probably conjures up actions beyond the moral pale, abominable behaviour which can never be countenanced.

I thought back to that hulk like monster while reading about the recent Yeshiva University forum discussing Being Gay In The Orthodox World and the harsh response to it. The discussion itself involved four participants who described heart wrenching stories – of earnestly seeking a wholesome life with wife and kids but being held back by their genetic make up; of desperately seeking acceptance from friends and family; of struggling to maintain their relationship with God and the religion they love.

The response meanwhile (unsympathetic as it was perhaps predictable) focussed on the aspect of homosexuality as a toevah, an abomination.

The ‘gay debate’ will probably be around for a while yet. But putting aside the first part of the infamous verse in Vayikra (the ‘lying with a man’ bit), I wonder whether our understanding of the second part, (the pronouncement of the act as a ‘toeva’) might have been overly influenced by Top Trumps.

We first encountered the term ‘toeva’ last week when Joseph refers to the problem of being a shepherd in Egypt. We later read about it regarding the prohibition of eating certain sea creatures (which is where the website comes in).

Rather than as abomination, it’s reasonable to translate the term as ‘taboo’ – something problematic in certain cultures, but not morally forbidden (whatever one’s views of shrimp, it’s hardly abominable).

Whether this realization makes any difference to those who zealously crusade against same sex relationships is unclear.

But at the very least it may cause some of us to question whether our shrill response to the issue has more to do with God or with our own personal insecurities.