November 23, 2006

Gay Israel

This week, the Israeli daily, Haaretz reported:

In a precedent-setting ruling, the High Court of Justice yesterday ruled that five gay couples who wed outside of Israel can be registered as married couples in the Population Registry.

A majority of six justices to one ruled that the Interior Ministry would have to register five gay couples as married based on the civil ceremonies performed in Toronto, Canada. However, the former High Court president, Justice Aharon Barak, said the ruling does not mean the state is recognizing the validity of such marriages, and that listing the couples as married in the Population Registry was a "technical procedure" for "statistical" purposes only…

However, Barak conceded "the court should not rule on the question of whether same-sex couples can have civil marriage in Israel itself. I accept that the question of civil marriage in Israel, including same-sex marriages, should be determined first and foremost by the legislature. This is not the question before us."…

Justice Elyakim Rubinstein wrote the sole dissenting opinion. "This is not a statistical registry but a public-social symbol, and that is the real goal of the petitioners. The issue of same-sex couples is relatively new in public discourse and is unfamiliar in most countries in the world, and by its nature it raises difficulties because of the attitude of some parts of the population to it. It is in the realm of the legislature and not in creative interpretation by the court."

Rubinstein wrote that ordinary people do not differentiate between the registration of a marriage and the recognition of its status. He also noted that only six out of 190 countries recognized same-sex marriage, and warned of a public loss of confidence in the court following the ruling.
Nothing better illustrates the peculiar nature of the State of Israel than this ruling coming a week after ultra-Orthodox Jews, combining with Muslims and Christians, succeeded in curtailing a Gay Parade in Jerusalem. Here you have the "perfect clash" between libertarian, democratic values that respect individual choices as represented by the totally secular Supreme Court, and, on the other hand, religious values based on an authority perceived to be beyond the human realm and therefore unchangeable and, indeed, unimpeachable. The fact is that in general religion often needs to be challenged precisely because it is so bad at dealing with exceptions and a secular court based on Human Rights is one way of doing this. What’s more the political nature of Israeli life is built on a deal whereby religion imposes itself in certain areas and has a monopoly on matters of status and rites of passage. I believe that there ought to be civil marriage in Israel and that rites of passage should be as free and open as they are in the Diaspora. On the other hand the secular world needs to accommodate to the Jewishness of the majority of its citizens.

Although, when push cones to shove, my loyalty is with the religious camp, I actually belong in both. I would like to see people choose a religious way of life, democratically, freely and without pressure; in such a society religious values would hold sway. But, at the same time, I believe that for those who have not chosen a religious lifestyle or belief system, religion has no right to impose it.

But Israel is an anomaly. Its secular values are not only alien to Judaism but place it in the top 6 of all libertarian, free societies in the world today. From a purely secular point of view, one should derive pride from our having a Jewish State that is in the vanguard of freedom. Nothing validates the aims of secular Zionism as much as allowing maximum freedom to individuals to live as they please.

Israel was not established as a Jewish state. Its declaration of Independence is not a religious or even specifically Jewish document. It has always been rather a state for Jews. My delight in its freedom is only tempered by the fact that such freedoms seem to be reserved primarily for its Jewish inhabitants. The honest, consistent approach would be to extend this freedom and equality to all its citizens, regardless of religion or sex or identity card. So there is an inconsistency in Israel’s moral position secularly. It is true that the constant state of war and the declared aim of dismantling a Jewish state go some way in mitigation. But if purely secular libertarian values are at the root of this decision of the Supreme Court, then secular Israeli society needs to be consistent and it isn’t.
On the other hand, many in the religious camp argue that there are endless other countries to go and act in any way a person wants to in private matters. Surely establishing a Jewish state was what true Love of Zion was all about; one in which Jewish values as opposed to Christian, Muslim or secular ones would play a determining role in the type of society to be established. It is this issue that the religious hotheads take advantage of to stage their violent protests. It is true all major rabbis have protested against and discouraged violence. But it is also true that they totally sympathize with the aims of the protestors, if not their methods.

It is important and necessary for a society to have different streams and attitudes, political and religious. The Rabbinate and the Supreme Court represent different poles, each one containing significant numbers of supporters and strong arguments. This sort of check-and-balance system, that one sees at work in the United States too. A swing in one direction usually leads to a swing back in the other.

But such a system can only work well where both sides are sensitive to each other ( and I know full well this is a pipe dream and I can’t think of anywhere where it really works that way). If an ultra-Orthodox Jew tries to ensure his area is traffic-free on Shabbat, that strikes me as perfectly legitimate. If he tries to stop people driving in secular areas, it is not. Similarly, people have the right to practice whatever form of sex they prefer. But if they try to push their sexuality, whether it is hetero or homo, in the face of people who have other values, that strikes me as provocation and insensitivity. It is legitimate to parade one's different sexuality or nudity in Tel Aviv, just as it is legitimate to block off Shabbat traffic in Meah Shearim. But for either to invade the other’s space is, to my mind, dangerous and threatens a break in society that will impoverish both sides. If I am expected to accept Supreme Court decisions I think I can expect them to take cognizance of the Jewish religious position too—cognizance, though not necessarily total or constant deference.

I am happy that the Supreme Court allowed civil gay marriages rights in a democratic society. I am sad they could not show understanding of those who saw a gay parade in Jerusalem as an unnecessary provocation. I like the nuances and varieties in Israeli life but, sadly, the overall tense situation makes for a society of fanatics, provocateurs and even, on rare occasions, murderers, rather than responsible citizens.

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November 19, 2006

Agunah Again

It has been a while since I last wrote about one of the subjects that really concerns and troubles me, the Agunah. An Agunah (literally, the tied/encircled woman, see Ruth 1.13) is a woman whose husband refuses to give her a divorce, or is unable to (perhaps he has been killed or kidnapped but more usually he’s just being a bastard), with the result that she cannot remarry. Another example is the Yevama, the childless widow who cannot remarry if her husband’s brother, who was Biblically required to marry her to keep the family line alive, refuses to release her with the ceremony of Halitza.

The problem is that divorce or release has to be agreed to by both parties, voluntarily. This is perfectly reasonable. But in practice it is the man who grants the release and as a rule, though not always, it is the man who refuses to give a divorce and holds out in the expectation of cashing in. I accept the argument that historically many laws in their original form that appear to put the female at a disadvantage were designed to protect her from the public glare, cross-examination and humiliation (something nowadays they are too often subjected to).

But the social status of a male gave him an unfair advantage. He could take a second wife if his first obstructed. And when polygamy was outlawed Jews were living under non-Jewish jurisdictions that were biased against women, so the power of Jewish courts to put pressure on husbands was lost. The result was that a husband could blackmail a woman by refusing to divorce her, while the female usually found it much harder to get the courts or the rabbis to press her case. Often the rabbis would provide a way for the man remarry, but this never applied to the woman.

Actually Jewish Law allowed for compulsion to be used to get the husband to change his mind, even to the point of physical assault. But in thirteenth century Europe, under pressure from Christianity in my opinion, the Rabbeynu Tam and subsequent rabbis practically forbade compulsion. Still, Jewish Law allowed for the annulment of marriages where circumstance warranted it. This was the most common medieval device for dealing with these problems when husbands disappeared pretty regularly, what with pogroms, forced conversions and bandits. So the rabbis then were more accommodating.

Sadly, over time attitudes began to harden. As women began to assert their rights, the predictable response of all religious authorities was and is to resist change. And of course the pressure of the Enlightenment simply drove Orthodoxy further into its protective mindset and against any accommodation with modern conditions. I personally believe that were the males to be the primary losers in this matter it would have been dealt with within the framework of halacha a long time ago.

In the face of our own halachic paralysis, recently attempts have been made to get civil courts to impose fines on recalcitrant husbands until they grant divorces, and prenuptials have been created that grant authority to a Beth Din to resolve the crisis if a marriage breaks down. Sadly, many Orthodox authorities still refuse to accept even these devices. The only explanation I have is that they are fearful of being accused of leniency in an era where leniency is almost akin to apostasy! In general I have no gripe with using non-Jewish law or other devices not originally part of our legal system to resolve a problem we have created. But I believe in the long run it proves counterproductive because it lets us off the hook.
I do care very much that our religion can consign women who cannot remarry to limbo while perfectly legal halachic devices for freeing them are not used. I find all of this a stain on halachic Judaism or, to be fair, on the rabbis who apply it. It represents a far greater challenge to my faith than any other single abuse or problem I know of. I have personal knowledge of too many cases where despicable or corrupt husbands have blackmailed their wives’ families for vast sums by refusing to release women they clearly no longer had feelings for. Over the years, a few brave rabbis have tried to change opinions or, as in the case of Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, actually do something about it. But in the end they have been rejected and humiliated and the status quo has remained.

Apart from some notable exceptions, only in Israel have serious attempts been made to deal with this issue. That is why I was so disappointed to see that a major conference involving rabbis and experts from around the world, convened by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel working together with women lawyers and campaigners, was cancelled this month by order of the Charedi authorities. Even more disappointing was the craven capitulation of Chief Rabbi Amar who excused himself by claiming that he would achieve more by agreeing to the cancellation. So far there is no “more”. There is silence.
Why did the oracular Rav Eliashiv (or his minders, who often frame questions to get desired answers) object? Was it because women experts were scheduled to speak or simply because the subject is taboo? We will never know given the current mood of obfuscation in matters rabbinic.

I am worried for another reason. I had hitherto believed that Israeli Jewry would come to the rescue of thinking, creative Torah Judaism. In Israel, unlike the Diaspora, there is the official state-funded and more inclusive Rabbinate. However regressive, it is still independent of the Charedi world, who so despise the “paid lackeys of the Zionist State” that, until recently, they left it alone. That is why under the Rabbinate women can plead in rabbinic courts, there are women experts in religious law, and indeed women trained to respond to halachic questions. Sure, there are still too many cases of male chauvinism, but at least in the Rabbinate one could see change, however modest and slow, and could hear alternative creative and tolerant voices. One never had such expectations of the Ashkenazi Charedi Rabbinate, for historical, political, and ideological reasons. But now it seems that, as in Britain and America, the Charedi rabbis are exercising pressure and the moderates are capitulating.

How did it happen? There are two theories I have heard. One is that as the Charedi world has so many well qualified graduates who need jobs that they have been infiltrating the upper echelons of the religious courts. If this is so then, like the United Synagogue in Britain, in a short time it will totally change the character, the values and the attitudes of the Israeli rabbinate in general. In the UK the battle has been lost. Moderate rabbinical leadership has given up the struggle (not irrevocably, I hope, because I am an optimist and a great believer in cycles and changes of mood).

The other explanation is that the moderate creative voices in the Rabbinate are almost all associated with right-wing politics, the religious kibbutzim and the Settler movement. They have been so involved in nationalist politics in recent years they have taken their eyes off the religious and spiritual ball. If this is so, then it is not too late. Perhaps a pathetic capitulation like this will give them a jolt and they will fight back and ensure that the glory is returned to Jewish Law and religious values and the Israeli official rabbinate might yet recover and save the day.

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November 05, 2006


The term "jeremiad" describes a doom laden diatribe against a corrupt society, associated with the Biblical prophet Jeremiah. This is going to be an example of a jeremiad.

Now Jeremiah certainly knew that at the time he lived, two thousand six hundred years ago, there were far more corrupt nations around than his own little kingdom of Judea. He was no admirer of Babylon, and he was no supporter of Egypt, the two "world powers" of his time. But it hurt him that his own people were betraying their own values and behaving no better than anyone else. He suffered imprisonment for his honesty. He was accused of undermining the morale of his people and, in fact, the term "jeremiad" has come to mean "unnecessarily negative criticism". For all this, he is one of the most admired and respected of our great men. And it is an essential feature of our tradition, both Biblical and post-Biblical, that we make no secret of our failures. Indeed, we focus attention on them to try to learn from our errors.

It is often said, with justification, that Jews who live outside Israel, who have not had to serve in the defense of the land or suffer their children being conscripted, have no right to pass judgment on what happens in Israel. But although those in Israel certainly have a far greater moral authority, this does not mean we Diaspora Jews cannot raise our voices in protest against things we believe are wrong. But wherever we are, we Jews glory in Israel’s triumphs and suffer obloquy for its failures. Therefore we are bound up in her fate, and our future is very much affected, both positively and negatively, by hers. Although there is a clear and obvious distinction between being Israeli and being Jewish, and the two do not always coincide, for the vast majority of Jews Israel is an integral part of our religious lives, let alone the political.

On November 2nd the Jerusalem Post said in an editorial that "corruption is so endemic in the upper echelons of Israeli society that it has virtually become a banana republic." It also said incidentally in the same edition that one in five Israeli women claim to have been sexually assaulted.

For months now I have rallied to the defense of Israel against the prejudiced, biased, exaggerated, dishonest criticisms that single Israel out as a wicked state while totally ignoring all the far worse corrupt, murderous, and evil regimes around the world. The UN has not set up one, not one, committee to consider compensating any, any victims of political conflict anywhere in the world except Israel. Jimmy Carter can find no other regime to excoriate--not Sudan, not Burma, not North Korea, just Israel. It cannot be explained in any other way than "the oldest hatred". Nevertheless, I happen to agree that a lot of what happens under occupation is unacceptable and not enough is being done to root out abuse. We must not let this deflect us, any more than Jeremiah did, from criticizing corruption and decadence if we see it in our own home.

From its inception, Nineteenth Century political Zionism included a sizeable proportion of radicals who consciously turned their backs on religion. There was in Israel a famous Canaanite Movement that wanted to return to a pre-Israelite civilization. Civilization? Burning your children in offering to Moloch and temple prostitution? A. D. Gordon’s famous comment about normality being achieved when there would be Jewish prostitutes on the streets of Tel Aviv has long since come (and gone, as Israeli Mafia white slave trade replaced them). Israel is a state that has more than its fair share of crime bosses, corrupt politicians, gang murders, and rapes. You cannot read the daily papers without a sad litany of crimes and corruption, only a small part of which ever reach international news. Recent papers released on the Sinai campaign in 1967 reveal that even if most soldiers were of a higher moral order, there were enough who stole, looted, shot prisoners, and raped to besmirch our reputation as a godly nation (and doubtless put us on the same level as the USA and Britain).

Recent sex scandals from the President down to Ministers and Generals show that a culture of physical bullying and macho insensitivity runs very deep indeed. You probably recall the joke about Golda Meir being asked what she’d do if she discovered one of her ministers was an adulterer. "I’d put his other eye out," she said (referring, of course, to Moshe Dayan, who was a notorious philanderer). The army has in the past had a reputation for using female soldiers for morale as much as anything else--one of the reasons many of the religious objected to female conscription.

Sadly, when you are brutal with your own, of course you are brutal with others. No, I do not make equivalences here. Enemy combatants are always going to get it when they find themselves on the wrong side. It's called war and Israel is in a state of war. Israeli captives have been brutally tortured and their bodies disfigured far more than anything that has happened to the other side. But, as the memorial for the Kfar Qassem massacres this past week reminds us, terrible errors have been made by the "good guys" too. (To Israel’s credit, that and other manifestly wrong decisions have been included in its school history syllabuses.)

We need to acknowledge that, for all its achievements, Israel is a sick society. We cannot pretend it isn’t so, although no country can be under permanent assault and threat and hope to be normal.

What depresses me even more is that so much of religious life is just as corrupt, financially, politically and, indeed, sexually. Dayanim and rabbanim have been accused of sexual harassment and rape. Yeshivas fiddle their books and student rolls for larger subsidies. No major rabbi has come out publicly with a ringing call to purge Orthodox society of its abuses and they take any attempt at curbing excess as a direct threat against Torah. Political corruption is so endemic that the religious justify it on the grounds that it’s the only way to survive. Last week too the Government itself recognized that religious supervisors of Kashrut were too often corrupted because they were paid by the caterers and purveyors and an independent body needs to be set up to control them. It's not just in Monsey in America that you can find Orthodox rabbis who abuse supervisory obligations. Religion is misused for financial and political gain and oppression. And modern day leaders are more interested in checking for bugs in lettuce leaves.

Of course there are good works and wonderful people. That is the saving grace. I know of no other society where corruption coexists with so much idealism and clean living. But if we fool ourselves that we are not sick, we will not try to work at the cure. And if we don’t, then, like the First Commonwealth and the Second, God will not forbear to see us destroy ourselves. We need to hear more people speaking out from love and commitment against those who, through their selfishness and misguidedness, would drag us all down to a lower level. I know a prophet is not heard in his own land but someone has to stand up and speak out against all this, otherwise one will begin to wonder what it is exactly that one is part of and supporting.

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