"The World-Wide Scandal of American Marriage and Divorce Law"

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Yesterday, this blog discussed the attitude of one segment of the Jewish population toward the marriage issue du jour, same-sex marriage. 98 years ago, however, a different issue related to civil marriage captured Jewish communal attention.

This week, from the J-Vault: Remedy for the Divorce Evil: A Proposed Federal Marriage and Divorce Law (1913)

The laxity of our divorce laws has done much toward the undermining and disrupting of our homes. Agencies interested in adjusting martial differences have found themselves helpless in adjusting the case of a deserted wife and children, wherein the husband and father produced a decree of separation or divorce obtained by him in another State...

...Under the liberal divorce laws of the United States, divorce is almost optional with either of the parties and fraud has become legalized. But now that the power of amending the United States Constitution is being more actively exercised, it is a source of satisfaction that the following proposed joint resolution to amending the United States Constitution has been introduced into the House of Representatives: "Congress shall have the power to establish uniform laws on the subject of marriage and divorce for the United States, and to provide penalties for the violation thereof."...

...The difference of sentiment between South Carolina, where divorces are not granted, and South Dakota, where they are procured for trivial cause, or between New York and Massachusetts, can scarcely be compromised to enable the adoption of similar laws by the States. For a cooperative statute to be of real service, it would have to be of uniform application and force... The proposed amendment should be zealously advocated, because it offers the only practical method of doing away with the world-wide scandal of American marriage and divorce law.

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Orthodoxy and Same-Sex Marriage

As the JTA reports, the Orthodox Union opposed New York's recent measure legalizing same-sex marriage. But might one Orthodox rabbi have exerted a degree of influence in favor of the law's passage?

Possibly. Influence is difficult to measure, and the decision ultimately rested in the mind and heart of each state senator... but possibly. Zeek reprints an open letter from Rabbi Steven Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi, to Sen. Steven Saland of Poughkeepsie, one of the two crucial Republican swing votes. In the letter, Rabbi Greenberg appeals to the memory of Saland's rabbinic ancestor, Rabbi Shmuel Salant -- a tactic shared by Agudath Israel in their own appeal to the senator, from the opposing side.

Whether Rabbi Greenberg and the Agudah had any impact or not, Saland voted for the measure in the end, putting the legislative question to rest in the state of New York. But within Orthodox Judaism, the question of how to relate to the modern world's ever-solidifying acceptance of homosexuality will continue for many years to come. Rabbi Greenberg, of course, is a significant voice in this internal debate, as are other gay Orthodox Jews, whose personal experiences make this issue impossible to ignore.

Yet, for all the consternation that this issue understandably causes in Orthodoxy when it comes to questions of halakhah, ritual, and other internal matters, it is somewhat baffling that Orthodox Jews should feel the need to maintain a correspondence between secular and religious definitions of marriage. As Rabbi Michael Broyde and Rabbi Shlomo Brody point out in the context of an article articulating a clear and strict opposition to homosexual sex,

Politics makes strange bedfellows, especially in multicultural democratic societies like America. The pragmatic decision to support equal rights for gays in the political realm is not inconsistent with our view that the underlining activity violates Jewish (and Noachide) law. We support religious freedom for all, even as we are aware that some might use this freedom to violate Jewish or Noachide law. Similarly, it is wise to support workplace policies of non-discrimination based on sexual orientation, just as we support such non-discrimination based on religion, even though these laws equally protect, for example, pagans. Discrimination based on lifestyle choices may threaten our own liberties, including freedom of religious expression... 

Rabbis Broyde and Brody go on to specify that both political opposition to and political support for same-sex legal marriage are within the realm of reasonable Orthodox choice:

If one believes a civil prohibition of same-sex marriage does not threaten our rights in the long term, then joining a political alliance opposing such, based on shared values or interests, seems reasonable. If, however, one views such a campaign as an infringement of civil liberties, or a potentially bad precedent that might endanger our interests in other areas of civil life, then one should not feel compelled to combat gay marriage.

If this is not a ringing endorsement of civil marriage equality, neither is it the stance of clear opposition taken by the Orthodox Union.

The Orthodox argument in favor of maximum liberty is not a recent invention; as the blog Failed Messiah notes, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein was essentially anti-abortion (except to save the life of the mother), and yet also essentially pro-choice. "In Rabbi Feinstein's view, the decision to abort was a decision that should be made by the woman and her rabbi, not by Congress."

Ultimately, as homosexuality becomes increasingly normalized in the broader world, Orthodoxy's internal and external stances on this issue will be increasingly tested and challenged.

From the J-Vault: Arab-Jewish Relations, Pre-Statehood

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On a day which saw comedienne Sarah Silverman offer her prescription for Middle East peace at the Israeli Presidential Conference -- a conference whose theme is "Tomorrow" -- let's take a look back at the Israel of yesterday, through the eyes of one of America's most important Zionists: Henrietta Szold.

This week, from the J-Vault: Recent Jewish Progress in Palestine (1916)

While Szold's report is mostly concerned with immigration figures, economic development, urban planning, village life, and other such logistical concerns, one section discusses relations between Arabs and Jews, and makes the reader long for an alternate and peaceful past that did not occur:

In general, the relation between Jews and Arabs is not unsatisfactory, in spite of the friction that occurs at certain points of contact. The reasonable expectation is that it will improve, because the mutual respect is increasing. The Arab has begun to recognize the value that has accrued to him and the land by the presence and the activity of the Jew. He already pays him the flattery of imitation. In some places he has adopted the modern methods and implements introduced by the Jew. On the other hand, the Jew recognizes that the Arab may be his teacher in all that relates to the soil. His fiber is, as it were, habituated to it. He knows it by instinct. For instance, the primitive plow of the Arab husbandman, wielded by his predecessor on the soil three thousand years ago, it was thought must be baniyhed beyond recall. More careful investigation has demonstrated that on some soils deep upturning is harmful; the superficial scratching of the wooden plowshare with its small iron attachment is exactly what is needed. Such recognitions of mutual helpfulness will multiply and make for a better understanding and neighborly tolerance. But that the relation is an aspect of Jewish colonization that will require wisdom and tact and statesmanship can and should not be minimized; nor are the leaders of Palestine public opinion guilty of neglect in this particular.

Szold goes on to describe the presence of a significant number of Russian converts to Judaism. She also predicts that Yemenite Jews, who are "tenaciously and loyally Jewish, intellectually alert," but "Arabic in speech and habit," will be "a cement between Arab and Jew, between the industrially-minded Jew of the city and the agriculturally minded Jew of the country, between Sefardi and Ashkenazi."

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San Fran Circumcision Ban: Cutting Down on Cutting

Circumcision

Despite all the demonstrable health benefits of circumcision, San Francisco will vote in November to decide whether or not to ban circumcision in the city, without any sort of religious exemption for Jews and Muslims.

The JTA Archive's blog takes a fascinating look back today at JTA articles from the 20th century on the topic of circumcision. With a hat-tip to our friends at the JTA, and a reminder regarding the old adage about imitation and flattery, here is our own round-up of a few circumcision-related BJPA holdings, all of them from the past three decades:

Perhaps the real motivation for the San Francisco circumcision ban is precisely to unite the Jewish and Muslim communities in opposition... Or not.

From the J-Vault: American Jewish Politics 100 Years Ago

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On a day when the Israeli Prime Minister will address the U.S. Congress, it is worth zooming out to look at Jewish involvement with American government from a more distant perspective -- to ask, for example: with what were American Jewish political advocates concerned a century ago?

Let's find out.

This week, from the J-Vault: The Government of the United States and Affairs of Interest to the Jews (1911)

This excerpt from the American Jewish Yearbook contains the following interesting items, among others:

Sen. Lee S. Overman (N. C.) introduces bill (S. 4514), providing for a $10 head tax, an educational test, the production of certificate of good character, the possession of $25, and other restrictive features [for immigration policy]...

Sen. Joseph F. Johnston (Ala.) submits a report (No. 81), on the bill (S. 404) introduced by him on March 22, 1909, for the proper observance of Sunday as a day of rest in the District of Columbia...

Rep. Adolph J. Sabath (111.), in a speech in the House, denounces the Immigration Commission for its "libel" on the Jewish people in its report on the White Slave Traffic...

After debate, in the course of which Senators Bailey (Tex.) and Money (Miss.) pay tribute to Jewish people, Senate passes bill (S. 404), introduced by Senator J. F. Johnston (Ala.), on March 22, 1909, for the proper observance of Sunday as a day of rest in the District of Columbia, amended so as to exempt from its penalties persons who observe as a day of rest any other day of the week than Sunday...

Rep. Everis A. Hayes (Cal.) introduces bill (H. R. 21,342), providing that the naturalization laws shall apply only to " white persons of the Caucasian race."...

Rep. Everis A. Hayes (Cal.) introduces bill (H. R. 24,993), providing that Section 2169 of the Revised Statutes, which accords the right of naturalization to "free white persons " and Africans, shall not be construed so as to prevent "Asiatics who are Armenians, Syrians, or Jews from becoming naturalized citizens."

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Proliferating Hebrew Language Charter Schools

The Jewish Week has two separate stories on Hebrew language charter schools today, covering one in Bergen County and one (proposed) in Harlem.

It is easy enough to find reasons for being concerned about this trend; how can Jewish religion be kept from creeping into the curriculum, tearing down the wall between church and state? If, on the other hand, that wall is somehow well-maintained, then will not Jewish children whose parents choose the schools as free alternatives to Jewish day school find that their children’s education is far less complete than that offered at a day school, bereft (as it must be) of Jewish values, ideas, messages and meanings?

In an exchange in the Forward in February 2010, Richard D. Kahlenberg raises precisely the former objection: “Using public funds for schools that cater to specific groups dangerously undercuts the unifying purpose of public education,” he writes. In the same exchange, Rabbi Irving Greenberg raises the latter objection: "The problem with charter schools,” he writes, “is that to qualify for government funding, the community must strip out the Jewish content, religion, values and advocacy from the educational program. I fear that such schools will fail to transmit Jewish identity.” Rabbi Greenberg does concede that these schools might “succeed when supplemented with Hebrew school education or Jewish camping. Therefore, I favor this experiment.” Still, he concludes, “the most likely outcome is that charter schools will teach language but lose the identity battle.”

Peter Deutsch, founder of the Ben Gamla Charter School, writes (in the same exchange) that

A Hebrew-English charter school education is not a day school education. However, a student completing a K-12 Hebrew-English charter school would have a strong, deep and intellectually based Hebrew language, history and culture education. That student would also have had the opportunity to easily enhance his or her religious education outside the public school setting.

I think these schools are tremendously exciting. Jewish education has many components, but if one component had to be chosen as the keystone and crown jewel, surely Hebrew language skills must be it; Hebrew opens the door to the vast majority of all other Jewish learning. Rabbi Greenberg is right that a Hebrew education would be an incomplete Jewish education, but think what texts could be presented in a supplementary school (or camp) if the students came in with solid, practiced Hebrew reading skills. That there is a significant trade-off cannot be denied, but life is full of such choices. Different families and sectors of the community will face them differently, which is one more reason to include this new choice on the menu of options.

Consider also the benefits to the Jewish community of having a significant number of non-Jewish students learn Hebrew and Jewish history and culture. Non-Jewish parents, meanwhile, will have the opportunity to see their children learn a legendary language with a fascinating literature, the classical form of which is of massive importance to Western history – a language which was once (in earlier, stuffier eras) de rigueur for the complete education, alongside Latin and Greek. The idea that such schools, as Kahlenberg puts it, “cater to specific groups” is certainly true in the sense that Jews are primarily advancing such schools, and Jews might primarily take advantage of them. But non-Jewish students would have their academic and intellectual lives enriched just as surely by such schools as would Jewish students.

Another aspect of the potential benefits of these charter schools is indicated by the work of BJPA Director Steven M. Cohen and Judith Veinstein of Tel Aviv University in a chapter in the new volume 5 of the International Handbook of Jewish Education. The chapter, entitled Jewish Identity: Who You Knew Affects How You Jew, argues

that Jewish education, like all forms of education that take place in a social context, exerts its impact in part by creating, sustaining, and reinforcing Jewish friendships. And we need to recognize that Jewish friendships, apart from Jewish education, exert an independent effect upon adult Jewish identity outcomes... The impact of Jewish education can be augmented by the creation and sustenance of strong Jewish social networks. If so, then mere Jewish association... can play a valuable role in building Jewish social networks, Jewish community, and lifelong Jewish engagement... These circumstances, then, argue for a broadening of the very concept of “Jewish education” to embrace the formation and bestowal of Jewish social networks.

If Cohen and Veinstein are correct, then the mere fact that Hebrew language charter schools will attract substantial numbers of Jewish students will have positive effects not only upon Hebrew skills, but upon Jewish identity as well -- even if Jewish identity is studiously never "preached." Furthermore, Jewish parents who want their children to have a genuinely diverse group of friends would be able to choose a school that included substantial numbers of Jews, and substantial numbers of non-Jews, serving the students' Jewish and American/democratic identities simultaneously.

What do you think? Can Hebrew language charter schools satisfy the demands of living in a diverse democracy? For Jewish families, will these schools supplement Jewish religious education, or destroy it by being treated as a replacement?

Jewish Links for MLK Day

From Allison Keyes at NPR, a story about bringing together African American and Jewish teens for a year-long leadership development program in which the two groups learn about each other's history and culture.

From Sue Fishkoff at the JTA: "A half-century later, rabbis recall marching with Martin Luther King"

From R' Leor  Sinai at eJewish Philanthropy: "MLK and Herzl: Continuous Revelation"

From Hillel's Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning, a fantastic Talmud-style text study tool for learning Biblical and rabbinic parallels to, and references in, Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech.

NYU's Unnecessary Apology

Yesterday morning, I received an email from the New York University Office of Public Affairs. (I am a grad student at NYU.*) The email read:

We apologize that John Sexton's memo to the NYU community about Academic Year 2010-11 was sent out after sundown on Friday, September 17.  We were aware of the start of Yom Kippur and had intended to be sure it was distributed early on Friday; however, because of technical problems and miscommunications, the memo was mistakenly sent on Friday evening. Please accept our apologies.

Upon receiving this email I was -- and I remain -- completely baffled, genuinely perplexed about what NYU had done for which it needed to apologize. What on earth is the problem?

Both NYU's student newspaper and the Jewish Telegraph Agency have covered this email and apology as news. (The NYU student newspaper I understand. As for the JTA... well, the fact that they covered these two emails can be seen either as a testament to the JTA's outstanding thoroughness, or as a sign of the Jewish community's obsessive naval-gazing, depending upon one's general mood.) But neither story clearly identifies what, precisely, NYU theoretically did wrong.

The JTA article cites "poor timing". But why, pray tell, was the timing "poor"? The story doesn't say, leaving the matter entirely to the reader's speculation. NYUNews.com notes that, "According to the customs of the holiday, those who observe the Jewish holy day must refrain from eating, drinking and using electronics from sundown on Sept. 17 to sundown on Sept. 18." But the story fails to identify how, specifically, NYU's sending an email runs afoul of Yom Kippur observance. There are a number of possible answers, but I hope to demonstrate below that all of them are quite ridiculous. Let us take each of these potential objections in turn:

Objection #1: NYU broke the laws of Yom Kippur by sending the email.

Response #1A: NYU is not Jewish, and so is not obligated in the laws of Yom Kippur. (NYU is also not a person for that matter, but set that aside, because if NYU were a Jewish institution, most Jews would probably still expect it to observe Yom Kippur. However, NYU is a non-sectarian university.)

Response #1B: NYU also breaks Shabbat all the time. This email went out at 10:36 on a Friday that happened to be Yom Kippur, but what if it had been an official email on a Friday in December, at 4:30 pm? Every winter, when Shabbat begins during the standard business day on Friday, I imagine official NYU emails go out on Shabbat with some frequency. Then consider Shavuot, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and Pesach, which frequently occur on business days, and on which I am confident NYU sends out copious official emails. If we're going to complain about emails being sent when Jews are forbidden to work (which, I maintain, we have no business doing in the first place), then we should at least be consistent, and complain all year long.

Objection #2: The individual who sent the email might be Jewish, and broke Yom Kippur by sending it.

Response #2A: The email went out under the name of NYU President John Sexton, who (despite the fact that his late wife, Lisa Goldberg z"l, was Jewish) is Catholic, at least if his Wikipedia page is to be trusted.

Response #2B: Even if it was a Jew working for NYU who pushed the send button on Yom Kippur, that was her/his personal choice to desecrate the holiday. While I am saddened that any Jew would choose to work on Yom Kippur, I am not the least bit "offended" by NYU as an institution, which has still, under this scenario, done nothing wrong.

Response #2C: We don't have any specific reason to believe that it was a Jew who sent the email. Are we taking a position that anytime a secular institution which employs Jews does something electronically on Yom Kippur, it is a problem because a Jewish employee might be involved?

Response #2D: And if we do have a problem with NYU doing anything at all on Yom Kippur because a Jew might be involved, see Response #1B: shouldn't we say the same of Shabbat, and all holidays?

Objection #3: NYU caused Jewish students and staff to break the laws of Yom Kippur by receiving the email.

Response #3A: Is there some hidden verse of Torah about Yom Kippur email which I've never heard before? ("It is a sabbath of solemn rest unto you, and ye shall afflict your souls; it is a statute forever. Neither you, nor your household, nor the stranger who is among you, nor your laptop, nor your printer, nor your fax, nor your Google account, shall do any manner of work...")

Response #3B: No, nobody broke Yom Kippur by receiving the email. Yeshivas Ohr Sameach, a right-wing Orthodox outreach institution with excellent bona fides in halachic stringency, notes (in the name of Rav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg) that it is completely permissible for a Jew in New York to send an email on Friday to a Jew in Jerusalem, where it is already Shabbat. Presumably, implicitly, there is no problem at all with that Jerusalem Jew retrieving the email after Shabbat, even though it arrived in her inbox on Shabbat. Receiving emails on Shabbat or Yom Tov is like setting up your lights on a timer; it is an automated process that doesn't break the solemnity of the day because you don't actually do anything to control it on the day of rest itself.

Objection #4: By conducting "business as usual" on Yom Kippur, the University sent the message that Jewish students are marginal and their highest holy day doesn't matter.

Response #4A: I think in order to have this response you need to be actively looking for things to be offended over. In which case, can we consider turning our energies toward matters of important substance instead?

Response #4B: What actually matters is that observant Jews have full access and ability to participate in NYU without compromising their religious life. This email does nothing to hinder Jewish participation in NYU life. So what's the problem?

Response #4C: The apology email went out at 11 am on a Sunday, which many Christians consider the Sabbath, or Lord's Day. Christian interpretations differ as to the necessity or nature of work restrictions on Sunday, but many denominations are quite strict, and some Christians might find this official apology email offensive coming, as it does, on the Christian Sabbath. Should NYU send out a new apology email about that? Or should we instead simply recognize that NYU is a huge and diverse university, with a large number of religions represented in its staff and student body?

Those are the four potential objections I can think of, all of them baseless. So am I missing something else? Is there some other reason a person could be offended by an email sent by a secular institution on Yom Kippur? Let me know.

So why do I bring this up, and pay a trivial matter more attention yet? Because the sad fact is that NYU wasn't being paranoid when they issued an apology for this non-transgression. There probably are Jews who managed somehow to be offended by (horror of horrors) the timing of an email update.

My fellow Jews, I say this with great love: we are a difficult bunch. We are so opinionated, so bold, so diverse and so eager to fight the good fight with all the righteous indignation we can muster that the Gentile world could be forgiven for feeling that, no matter what they do, some of us will be offended.

And let me add, I love those qualities of our people. These qualities gave us what it takes to smash idols and proclaim God's justice, to make enormous contributions to world ideas and culture, to stand up for our rights and for the rights of others. It takes difficult people to do revolutionary things.

I'm just saying: let's make sure our righteous indignation is focused on things that matter most. Iran is on course to build a nuclear bomb. There are millions of people enslaved, and millions more in crushing poverty. There are terrorists bent on destroying Israel and America, and extremists bent on destroying civil liberties. Are we really, really getting offended about emails being sent four hours into Yom Tov?

For some perspective, let's take a look back through the BJPA archives to another High Holiday season: September 1958. Albert J. Weiss of the ADL, writing in the Journal of Jewish Communal Service,discussed quotas and other forms of outright admissions discrimination against Jews at many hundreds of American universities. If anyone can read this piece, and then still manage to be in a huff about EmailGate, then I quite simply marvel at their superhuman powers of huffery.

 

*In the interest of full disclosure I should note that, in addition to being an NYU student, as an employee of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive @ NYU Wagner, I am on the University's payroll, and indeed, my contributions to this blog are in that capacity. I should also note that I am the recipient of a fellowship named for University President John Stexton's late wife, Lisa Goldberg, zichrona livracha. All that being said, however, I promise that I wrote this posting on my own behalf, based on my own true reactions and judgments, which I believe to be fair, despite my ties to NYU.

Muslim-Jewish Relations

Our September newsletter focused on Muslim-Jewish relations, and if you've not had the chance to see it yet, it's definitely worth checking out. It gives an overview of our sources on topics from Muslim antisemitism in Sweden, to Jewish-Muslim cooperation, Jewish opposition to the proposed WTC mosque, the ongoing impact of 9/11 on Jewish-Muslim relations in America, memoirs of Jews from Muslim lands, and, of course, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - and much more.

On a related note - the following public statement, written by Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer and cosigned by a group of Rabbis and Jewish educators, was recently released:

As inter-religious educators who work with rabbinical students from all denominations, we are deeply dismayed by some of the ignorance and confusion we have heard expressed in the national conversation surrounding the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque.” We are especially concerned when we hear such ignorance and confusion coming from within the Jewish community. Whatever happens with the proposed community center in lower Manhattan, the controversy has highlighted a question that, in the post 9/11 world, comes enmeshed in strong emotion: Is the American ideal of religious liberty—an ideal fundamental to the health of our democracy—expansive enough to include Muslim Americans? We urge rabbis across the country to speak out against the bigotry that has been unleashed by this controversy, and to assert leadership on the issue of religious pluralism. As Jews, we know all too well the destructive power of hate speech. We should be in the forefront of efforts to ensure that religious minorities can practice their traditions freely.

We encourage our students and colleagues in the rabbinate—Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal, and independent—to consider using this September 11th, also Shabbat Shuva, as a time to reflect with our communities on our own fears and prejudices, on the need to educate ourselves about Islam, and on the role Jews might play in helping to create a more inclusive and just society. Of course, this is not to preclude any memorial prayers or other ways of remembering those who were killed on 9/11.

We are posting resources of general interest on www.multifaithworld.com. We are also developing a collection of sample sermons. Please be in touch with one of us if you have a contribution you would like to share.

We look forward to hearing your responses.

L’shana Tova,

Rabbi Justus Baird Director, Center for Multifaith Education, Auburn Theological Seminary

Rabbi Reuven Firestone Professor of Medieval Jewish and Islamic Studies, HUC-JIR/Los Angeles Senior Fellow, Center for Religion and Civic Culture, University of Southern California

Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer Director, Department of Multifaith Studies and Initiatives and Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College

Rabbi Or Rose Associate Dean, Rabbinical School of Hebrew College Co-Director, Center for Interreligious Leadership Education

Raquel Ukeles, PhD Golda Meir Fellow, Hebrew University of Jerusalem Academic Director, World Leadership Program Jewish Scholar, Luce Retreat for Emerging Muslim and Jewish Religious Leaders

Rabbi Burton Visotsky Appleman Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies and Director, Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies, Jewish Theological Seminary of America

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