Saturday, October 25, 2008

Let's agree to disagree- but if you disagree with me, you're a Hellenist traitor

Avi Shafran is just dying to explain why all good Jews MUST support Prop 8 in California to ban same-sex marriages.
What is more, and here more to the point, societal “officializing” of such unions – i.e. calling them “marriages” – is particularly condemned by unimpeachable and authoritative Jewish sources. They consider a society that “writes marriage documents for men” to be endangering its very existence.
Really? Where is that line, exactly? Was this a problem they encountered a lot in Jewish antiquity? Was the issue in Sodom not roving squads of gay rapists but rather commitment ceremonies? And sometimes they made kids watch (or worse yet, throw flowers). Oh the humanity!

A Jewish case can certainly be made for a libertarian approach to matters of personal behavior, for a “live and let live” attitude that, for all its morally objectionable yield, can help ensure the protection of religious and other fundamental freedoms. In any event, the behavioral issue is legally moot; the highest court in the land has declared unconstitutional laws that criminalize homosexual acts between consenting adults. But Proposition 8 is not about legislating personal behavior – be it same-sex, multi-partner or incestuous, all of which have their proponents. It is, rather, about preventing a twisting of the time-honored and timeless definition of marriage, a definition whose upholding the rabbis of the Talmud considered to be one of humanity’s saving graces.

Fun with semantics. Yeah, it doesn't legislate personal behavior at all, except for legislating personal behavior by forbidding gay couples to get married. Whoops.

Here's where it gets good:
We Jews as a people have a tendency toward “progressive” movements and tend to welcome all societal change as inherently healthy and good. Some such change, of course, is indeed so, and Jews can be rightly proud of having been at the forefront of social causes like racial equality and employees’ rights. But headlong rushes to a “more enlightened future” have landed some Jews in some unsavory places, like the forefront of communism in the early decades of the previous century. Or, centuries earlier, among the Hellenists of ancient Greece. Or even earlier, dancing in celebration of a golden calf.

Got that? The Golden Calf was the liberal Israelites' fault! I guess that makes Aharon an early Bill Ayers, or whoever conservatives are claiming to be the liberal Pope these days. Incidentally, I'm no fan of the Jewish Communists responsible for thousands and thousands of deaths in the Soviet Union, but it's not like sequestering oneself in a reactionary bubble is a much better alternative. Modesty squads, anyone?

Rabbi Shafran's position is not unlike the rabbis of Europe who, at the dawning of the modern age, prayed for the success of the Russians against Napoleon, fearing that liberal reforms like citizenship and other rights would give Jews opportunities to become modern people and, heaven forbid, leave the ghetto and its strictly enforced communal standards. They preferred to live as subjects under a repressive autocrat than give their people the mere choice of how to live their lives. More than a century later, this same fear and distrust of change (or challenge) contributed to the tragedy during the Shoah, when rabbis preached violently against leaving for America, Israel, or anywhere else, because no place but the shtetl could ever be as safe, stable, or controllable. We know what happened to those loyal followers. Had they been willing to take a chance on a "change" they could have contributed unknown gifts to their communities and the world. Instead they remained where they were, as they had always been, and were massacred.

Much of the world considers reformulating the meaning of marriage to represent progress. And many Jews, as in past “progressive” movements, are giddily jumping on the burnished bandwagon.
Jews, though, who understand what it means to have been chosen by G-d to stand for holiness – which the Talmud teaches has a primary meaning of “separation from immorality” – know that all that glistens to a liberal eye is not gold, or even good.

No, not all change is automatically good, but neither is the status quo. Child labor was not so good. Denying women the right to vote, not so good. Slavery, not so good. And on a religious scale, Judaism has benefited from modern innovations and ideas, ranging from decisions on new medical procedures to new ideas like Hasidism, Musar, or Reform. The Orthodox Judaism of R. Shafran is actually the result of fairly recent "changes" from just the past few centuries.

Judaism is not, and has not historically been, a static movement. And the alternative to change, stagnation, is certainly not ideal, either. Jews are not supposed to be Amish or Samaritans. We are supposed to engage, confront, argue and wrestle with the world as it comes. If you support Prop 8 that's your business. But when you conflate Jews fighting for a better world (in many ways and over many centuries) with the Hellenists and Communists of yesteryear, you create a fallacy of "change for change's sake" vs. "ol' faithful Judaism." Not only is the ideal somewhere in the middle, both extremes are strawmen anyway.

1 comment:

BBJ said...

Well said. Bless you. Thank you. Oy!

Why are all these people trying to prevent me from dancing at Mirele's wedding?