Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Why I'm not 'Orthoprax'

[Hillel] said: What is hateful to you do not do to your fellow man; this is the entire Torah, the rest is explanation - go and learn. (BT Shabbat 31a)

I've never been so disappointed in our 'democracy.' The majority-Republican California Supreme Court just upheld Proposition 8, a discriminatory and religious Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. It's bad enough we have a bunch of religious lawyers out there making unconstitutional laws - we need judges, too? This is a bitter disappointment, a complete failure of democracy and freedom, and it's the religious peoples' fault, especially their leaders.

It's not the first time I've run up against this issue. For years, I was "Orthoprax" - meaning I kept Orthodox Jewish halakha and kept my mouth shut about what I knew about it. A turning point came when I helped organize, for our college Hillel, a community discussion of the film Trembling Before G-d, which documents gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews. I faced bitter opposition from wet-behind-the-ears community members and ultra-Orthodox rabbis who keep their wives behind closed doors. These rabbis should have been sponsoring the event - not opposing it!

We had the event, and it was successful, but the experience raised doubts in my mind about the Orthoprax approach. Once you get beyond "absolute truth" (which I discovered was nonsense after three years of intensive study in Israel), organized religion is really a bunch of organizations. The Orthodox Union does not support gays - why should I support them? Why donate money and time to an institution that I don't believe in and don't agree with? Why participate in a conspiracy of silence just so rabbis could continue to abuse the Torah?

Some 'religious' institutions do get it right. One of these is Progressive Jewish Alliance. I danced at their huppa on the steps of San Francisco City Hall for the first state-recognized gay marriages, before Prop 8. But these organizations are a drop in the bucket, and we could accomplish the same thing without the religious angle. As support for gay marriage grows, I am sure other religious organizations will begin to catch up. But I'm not sure I want any part of it.

Here are some pics of those weddings at City Hall. I will always remember it as a sweet day.

That's one gay huppa!

Free Ben and Jerry's - yum!

May 2009 CA Supreme Court majority opinion

5 comments:

Dave L said...

How did I know that you would post about Proposition 8? ;-) I just have two points and one question:

1. I’m not sure that I understand the following passage in your post:

“The majority-Republican California Supreme Court just upheld Proposition 8, a discriminatory and religious Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. It's bad enough we have a bunch of religious lawyers out there making unconstitutional laws - we need judges, too?”

Since when do lawyers make laws? (I must have missed that session of my constitutional law class.) Also, why are you blaming the judges? Just because something is wrong doesn’t make it unconstitutional. The judges didn’t put Proposition 8 into law – that was the role of your fellow California citizen. If you want to complain about the law, you should get on a bus and start yelling at random people, chances are the majority of the people on the bus voted for Proposition 8.

2. I don’t think that your opening quote from the Talmud is appropriate for this post. The author of the post, Hillel, believed that following religious law (or “Orthodox religious halacha,” as you put it) was mandatory. Also, Hillel forbid homosexual sex. Incidentally, the Karaite Judaism that you lauded a few posts ago, views homosexuality as a crime punishable by death.

3. What Ultra-Orthodox rabbis at the University of Pennsylvania “keep their wives behind closed doors”? Maybe you could sort of say such a thing about A CERTAIN PERCENTAGE of Satmar or similar types of Hasidim, but who was like that at Penn?

Samurai Scientist said...

@Dave,
Since when do lawyers make laws? (I must have missed that session of my constitutional law class.) Also, why are you blaming the judges? Just because something is wrong doesn’t make it unconstitutional.

I blame the lawyers because they sell out to whoever pays them and find loopholes in the law rather than try to uphold it. A lot of them also end up in our legislature, making laws like the one that started this mess in CA many years ago. But you are right, the people are equally at fault here.

As for the judges, they are a weak bunch, not worthy of their robes. When MLK was arrested in Birmingham, the Supreme Court overturned the discriminatory statute before the ruling in the lower court was passed. I wish the judges today had that kind of verve.

What Ultra-Orthodox rabbis at the University of Pennsylvania “keep their wives behind closed doors”?

I had in mind a particular rabbi from the Philadelphia yeshiva who used to come try to m'karev the college kids at Penn. He proclaimed our event "assur". I think he would have probably benefited from going, since I hear there's plenty of monkey business going on in the Philly dorms.

Dave L said...

“I blame the lawyers because they sell out to whoever pays them and find loopholes in the law rather than try to uphold it.”

The lawyers who are trying to find loopholes in the law passed (not by the legislature, but, in fact, by a direct vote from the people) in this case are those who are arguing that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional, so I really don’t understand your complaint. Those lawyers are of course just doing their job, what they think is right, or some combination of the two. I would imagine that there is similar motivation for the lawyers on the side of the issue.

Speaking of not applying things the way that they are intended... I might add (as I implied before), that Hillel would not be happy with you using his quote to support the argument you are making.

“As for the judges, they are a weak bunch, not worthy of their robes. When MLK was arrested in Birmingham, the Supreme Court overturned the discriminatory statute before the ruling in the lower court was passed. I wish the judges today had that kind of verve.”

In MLK’s case, separate but equal was clearly unconstitutional, because separate was never really equal. In contrast, the case before the California Supreme Court involved issues such as whether Proposition 8 was a constitutional revision instead of an amendment (therefore requiring a 2/3 vote in the legislature) and some separation of powers issues – which are much murkier questions.

Also, I should clarify that when I said that a certain percentage of Satmar Hasidim might keep their wives behind closed doors, I meant that their wives don’t take a public role outside of the home and don’t drive cars, not that they are literally kept behind closed doors (Taliban style). And again that is only certain Satmar Hasidim.

Samurai Scientist said...

@Dave, I'll concede the point that maybe I was too hard on lawyers. I had in fact remembered incorrectly, thinking the legislature had passed banned gay marriage in 2000. In fact it was the people, and the legislature actually passed a bill legalizing gay marriage in 2005 - which was quickly vetoed by Ahnold.

The author of the post, Hillel, believed that following religious law (or “Orthodox religious halacha,” as you put it) was mandatory. Also, Hillel forbid homosexual sex. Incidentally, the Karaite Judaism that you lauded a few posts ago, views homosexuality as a crime punishable by death.

It would indeed have been interesting to ask Hillel how he resolves his statement about the ethic of reciprocity being the entire Torah with many of the laws in the Hebrew Bible (several of which had by Hillel's time been misinterpreted by the rabbis). In terms of our current situation, we have no idea what Hillel would have said. Proposition 8 is intended not for a Jewish theocracy but rather for a secular democracy. I have met many clergy who won't marry gay couples but do not support Prop 8, because they know that religion should not dictate public policy in this country (duh). This is only one of many arguments. In any case, I think Hillel's quote is extremely relevant to this situation and I could back it up with any number of similar Rabbinic statements.

I do not consider Hillel to be an Orthodox Jew, but it is worth pointing out that there are many 'halakhic' arguments to be made in terms of Orthodox Jewish attitudes toward homosexuality. British sub-chief rabbi Chaim Rappaport wrote a book on this, so did openly gay Orthodox rabbi Steve Greenberg. Hillel might have supported such efforts, had he lived in our era - or he might have been an Buddhist for all we know.

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