The Lubavitcher Rebbe's 19th Yahrtzeit

Lubavitcher Rebbe

Today is the 19th anniversary (by the Jewish calendar) of the death of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh and last Lubavitcher Rebbe. Here are two BJPA publications to mark the occasion:

The Many Movements of Chabad

Maya Balakirsky Katz | Sh'ma, December 2102  |  Information  |  View

Under the leadership of its last rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902- 1994), Chabad in America evolved its leadership to include a geographically scattered group of followers, turning a necessary response to dislocation into a modus operandi of modern Chabad...

The Chabad Lubavitch Movement: Filling the Jewish Vacuum Worldwide -- An Interview with Samuel Heilman

Manfred Gerstenfeld  |  JCPA, December 2005  |  Information  |  View

While other Hasidic groups grow only through their high fertility, Chabad increases also through persuasion. This carries a risk. When a Hasidic group imports outsiders, they do not leave behind all they were before. They bring new cultural elements into the group. One finds, for instance, art in Chabad environments, a rather uncommon phenomenon among Hasidim. Chabad Hasidim - also due to the environment they live in - must have a certain level of tolerance toward nonobservance. They usually also have friends who are non-Orthodox Jews.

 

Browse BJPA by Topic for related publications:

Orthodox Judaism

Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) Judaism

Jewish Leadership

Do Jews Switch Parties Every 70 Years?

Today being the day of the New Hampshire primary elections, with the eyes of the nation fixed on the contest for the Republican nomination, it's as good a day as any to ask: Are American Jews Becoming Republican?

Steven Windmueller isn't exactly saying "yes" in this 2003 article, but does note that the Democratic near-monopoly on Jewish voting does seem to be cracking:

Where once the Democratic Party could count on a 90 percent Jewish turnout for its candidates, these numbers are now generally 60-75 percent, depending upon particular elections and specific candidates... there is some evidence that younger Jews do not hold the same degree of loyalty to the Democratic Party and, as a result, are more likely to register as Independent or Republican. Thus, the Republican Party may have a better chance of picking up the Jewish vote in the towns inhabited by young professionals in northern New Jersey than in the retirement communities of southern Florida. While these numbers do not indicate a definitive generational trend, it does appear that both Orthodox Jews and Jews who are from more secular backgrounds tend to vote Republican more frequently than do other Jewish constituencies, clearly for different ideological, political, and cultural reasons.

Furthermore, he notes, Jews switching party allegiances is not unprecedented:

From 1860 until the election of Franklin Roosevelt, American Jews voted overwhelmingly Republican. Just as Lincoln was perceived as a hero of the Jewish people through his leadership in overturning Grant's Order No. 11 and in leading the fight against slavery while seeking to preserve the Union, Roosevelt would fulfill a similar role for Jews beginning with his efforts to build a new coalition of political power to transform the economy and later to mobilize the nation against Nazism...

...Theodore Roosevelt was the last Republican to receive significant Jewish support; his fierce independence and support of specific Jewish concerns made him a hero to many within this community. Democrat Woodrow Wilson would capture the attention of many American Jews with his internationalist vision and, more directly, his ideas pertaining to the creation of a League of Nations. In addition, Wilson's nomination of Louis Brandeis to the Supreme Court, his endorsement of the Balfour Declaration and later Zionist claims in Palestine, and his condemnation of anti-Semitism both domestic and foreign would begin the repositioning of Jewish political loyalties and voting patterns.

While the leadership of the Jewish community remained staunchly Republican, including such personalities as Louis Marshall, the leader of the American Jewish Committee, and a host of other key players of that era, the bulk of the community was to shift party allegiance as a result of changes within the community and in American society... The last Republican presidential candidate to win a plurality of the Jewish vote was Warren Harding in 1920...

Windmueller gleans general lessons on Jewish party-switching:

Jewish voting patterns may undergo significant change at those times in which Jews sense that their self-interests are being challenged, and that it is essential for them to evaluate their political position within the society. This occurred at the time of Lincoln, during the Wilson era, and as a result of the Great Depression. Whether in fact Jewish voting patterns shift significantly in seventy-year cycles remains to be seen.

The idea of seventy-year cycles is fascinating. Clearly Windmueller isn't suggesting anything fixed and regular like clockwork, but the notion that generational dynamics produce pendulum-like political trends would be worth further study, both within the Jewish community and beyond it.

Could Beit Shemesh Happen Here?

Conversations about of the place of Jewish law in the regulation of public space will always, naturally, be radically different in Israel than in America. But isolated American Haredi communities can and do pose similar problems.

A case in point: Rethinking Secularization Theory: The Case of the Hasidic Public Square.

Kiryas Joel is a legally recognized municipality about fifty miles northwest of New York City composed almost entirely of Satmar Hasidic Jews... The community operates according to a strict code of halakhic observance and modesty norms... and total social segregation from the surrounding towns and villages of Orange County is considered essential to the preservation of the community... Inasmuch as Kiryas Joel is a community that brooks little dissent or deviation from the norms enunciated by its religious leaders, it fits into this tradition of illiberal religious groups in the history of American religious sectarianism.

Also on the subject: Sh'ma's February 2007 issue on Haredi Judaism.

Matisyahu and the Spiral of Authenticity

By now you've heard the (apparently earth-shattering) news that Matisyahu has shaved his beard.

Beardless

The pundits of Jewry are abuzz with interpretive chatter -- and no surprise, since Matisyahu was already (in his hassidic incarnation) an icon and byword for all manner of Jewish discourse about culture, religion, and identity.

A very recent case in point: in the most recent issue of Sh'ma, Stuart Z. Charmé uses the hassidic Matisyahu as the denouement to his article, "The Spiral of Jewish Authenticity". Responding with circumspect detachment to his teenage daughter's announcement that she doesn't consider herself Jewish (since slam poetry is her true identity), Charmé notes that, as his research has shown, teenagers and the adults they grow to become have ever-shifting relationships to Judaism:

Ultimately, what I wish for my daughter is a Jewish journey that is intellectually and psychologically honest, vibrant, and creative; one that values questions more than answers, while avoiding the pitfalls of premature closure and rigidity. I trust that she will discover authentic forms of Jewish expression for herself as she redefines her past and plans for the future. I can’t predict whether slam poetry will be part of that process, but if the singer Matisyahu could use reggae to find a sense of Jewish authenticity for himself, then why not?

(Emphasis, of course, is added.) How unlucky for Stuart Charmé, one might think, that merely two weeks after he publishes a piece which uses the hassid Matisyahu as an example, Matisyahu goes and shaves and de-hassidifies.

But in this case, one would be wrong to think so. In fact, Charmé's point regarding Matisyahu not only still stands, but stands even stronger. Much of the article, read in hindsight following "ShaverGate," read as if they were written with the apparently-now-misnagdic Mat(thew? isyahu?) in mind:

I have described the experience of Jewishness over the course of one’s life as a loose spiral. We circle back to revisit a variety of issues related to Judaism and Jewishness; each time, we approach the experience of Jewishness from new perspectives and with new investments and understandings that emerge in response to other changes in our lives.

For many Jews, the feeling of Jewish authenticity involves a sense of connection to a romanticized or idealized image of the past... Much has also been written... about the postmodern freedom to “construct” or “invent” Jewish identity in a myriad of ways ranging from contemporary ultra-Orthodoxy to Torah Yoga and Jewish “mindfulness.”...

It is obvious that claims about authenticity can never really offer a scientific test of purity, a “Good Housekeeping” seal of approval, or a warranty against change. Some of what is now accepted as authentically Jewish will eventually be abandoned and some of what is now rejected will later be reclaimed. In this sense, each individual’s search for Jewish authenticity is a microcosm of the collective process of redefining Judaism at different moments of history.

The desire for Jewish authenticity, therefore, has both retrospective and prospective dimensions. On the one hand, it situates one in relationship to one’s personal and group history; it provides a sense of existential orientation and protection; and it, thereby, offers a provisional home in the world. But the goal of authenticity is simultaneously a warning to be careful of claiming too much certainty at the present moment — recognizing the permanently destabilizing power of the future to shatter and rebuild the foundations of our world in ever-new ways... There is probably some Zen-like truth to the idea that those who claim most adamantly to have found or achieved Jewish authenticity are also those who lack it in a deeper sense.

For those who responded to Matisyahu's naked face with disappointment, then, as well as for those who responded with anti-Orthodox glee, we might all do well to borrow some of Stuart Charmé's detachment and attention to the long view. Life keeps going on, the spiral of authenticity keeps spiralling, and we might all turn out to be someone a little (or a lot) different tomorrow.

Facebook for the Frum

Shomer Negiah just went tech. For the ultra-orthodox who prefer separation of the sexes even on the world wide web, their manna from digital heaven just arrived. Enter FaceGlat. Yes, you read that right. The brainchild of Yaakov Swisa, a web developer out of Israel, FaceGlat is Facebook for Haredim. With no immodest ads and a filter to watch out for any language not deemed kosher enough, you'll be more likely to see pictures of a modest luncheon than girls gone wild in Cancun.

While I fully understand and respect one's desire to keep things modest both on and off the web, wouldn't it just be easier to go without Facebook, sans tznius version and all? Even if you won't be exposed to Armani underwear ads while checking out Malky Leibowitz's  L'chaim party album, why risk it, when other lascivious web dangers are lurking nearby? My feeling is this. If you're concerned about your modesty enough to be attracted to FaceGlat over Facebook in the first place, then why not just make a Picasa album to share with your friends? No browsing necessary, no mitzvot broken.

Lisa Colton, founder and president of Darim Online, believes that the effect technology has had on the Jewish world is both positive and negative. She acknowledges that outlets like Facebook can be a good thing in promoting Jewish communal life, but that the distrations that such platforms bring to our lives is negative. Read her article here.

 

 

 

Rebbetzin Redux

Our new BJPA Project Assistant, Jessica Cavanagh-Melhado, was profiled today in the Forward's Sisterhood blog, for her writing (along with co-blogger Melissa Scholten-Gutierrez) at Redefining Rebbetzin.

Melissa: There is this old stereotype of a rebbetzin being a frumpy woman who stays at home, cooking with kids hanging from her skirt — and one look at our blog will tell you that that is far from who we are! A big part of what we’re exploring is how people view contemporary rebbetzins and contrast that with this Old World sterotype. I don’t think we could have dreamed it would be in the place it is not just a year and a half into it!

Jessica: There’s the new phenomenon in the traditional world of women leaders in congregations, and having to figure out the role of their spouses. Those two things together I think formed the kernel of this idea. There is a lot of ground between what women and men out there are experiencing and what the traditional notion is, and that’s really interesting. The dynamic of two friends ending up married to two guys who want to be rabbis seemed a little unlikely, given our backgrounds. It really compelled us to share our stories.

What’s your definition of feminism? Is this a feminist project?

Melissa: Feminism is about empowering women to be whoever they are, wherever they are, in a way which is fulfilling to them. It’s not about being “equal” to men; that implies that women are inherently less than men and we have to do things in a more masculine way to be the best women we can be. Choosing to be a religious working woman who dreams of being able to both work to support her family and to be able to spend the formative years of her (future) children’s lives with them is embracing feminism.

Jessica: We’re married women living in religious communities that are struggling with the role of women. This is somewhat of a feminist project, since it gives us a platform to grapple with community norms and halachic issues. Child-rearing is a feminist issue; we can’t talk about advancing women in positions of power if we don’t talk about the lack of affordable child care and helping women create balance in their home lives.

Read the whole interview here.

Kol hakavod to Jessica -- who, by the way, is not the only rebbetzin on the BJPA staff. Our fearless leader, BJPA Director Prof. Steven M. Cohen, is also a rebbetzin; he is married to Rabbi Marion Lev-Cohen.

Random Publication of the Day: Beach Mechitzah

In the spirit of enjoying the summer while it lasts, a little beach reading:

The Rise and Washout of a Jewish Beach (Lionel Sasson, Sh'ma, 1978)

Rabbi Lazar Kahanow of the Young Israel of Long Beach Synagogue... approached members of the city council with an idea to attract Orthodox residents during the summer months. He asked if it was somehow possible to modify one of the city's twenty eight beaches so that there might be separate bathing areas for men and women. He explained that "lighdy attired men and women bathing together is a'violation of the Orthodox laws of modesty." He stated that at least one thousand of the city's residents have been disenfranchised from the beaches by the presence of mixed bathing. He cited the city of Boston which built separate bathing facilities for men and women which are utilized chiefly by the large Irish Catholic population...

...The City of New York, bowing to public pressure, recently unofficially designated a part of Riis Park in the Rockaways for nude bathing. The segregationists' viewpoint was that if the nudists could have a nude bathing beach, it was downright obscene not to permit others a place to bathe in modesty...

...Local controversy, much of it within the local Jewish population had dampened Rabbi Kahanow's plans. There was fear that vigilantes, who could only be asked voluntarily to leave since the beach remained a public one, would invade the women's section. The males feared that their section might become a loitering place for homosexuals. Outside J.D.L. factions threatened that they would come to keep the peace. Others voiced fear that the beach would become a target for antisemitism. Rabbi Kahanow maintained that if the congregants ignored the invaders and trouble makers, the trouble would leave the way it came...

...At 8 o'clock on Thursday, June 30, a small yellow bulldozer from a private contractor rambled onto Lincoln Beach and started digging out sand from
under the boardwalk to create a new beach entrance. Few realized what was going on until Rabbi Kahanow appeared on the boardwalk to give his blessings to the construction. Alex Safer, a local builder and advisor to the Rabbi, explained the drawing card aspect of the project to one irate bystander concluding vehemently, "We are not moving, we are going to fight." Replied the bystander, "Mentals or the religious, so what's the difference?"...

...When installation was nearing completion, Tom Daly, Asst. to the Chief of Lifeguards, arrived to inspect the proceedings. Upon wishing the Rabbi well, he insightfully pointed out that unless holes were cut into the fence to relieve water pressure that would build up with the pounding of the waves, the wall would be knocked down. The Rabbi protested saying that additional holes would subtract from the privacy of the fence. After some discussion the fence foreman decided to cut small 1" holes into every other slot. For this he needed a small generator which he insisted on the Rabbi procuring. Several phone calls later the Rabbi announced that one could be borrowed from the city. The fence installers boarded their truck saying they were going to get the generator and were never seen again...

...Hostility increased as more fence went up. Shouts of 'Tear it down," and "Burn Fort Zion," brought patrol cars much of the day. City Council President Harvey Weisenberg, unaware that the beach was actually being built, was alerted by numerous phone calls at his residence and came for a first hand look. Waved to from the beach, he yelled back angrily, "No, no, no, not here." For a moment it looked as though he was going to descend to the beach and tear it down board by board. At City Hall complaints jammed the switchboard...

...The tide started rising at four o'clock. A weak low pressure front clouded the skies and started sending in small swells. On the beach a lone patron chatted with the lifeguard while the crowd on the boardwalk became larger and more belligerent. At four thirty five a loud cracking sound was heard. All heads turned to the middle of the beach where the first waves from the incoming tide had reached the stockade. Like wind whipping through wheat, the fence swayed with every passing wave. The bulge of the wave traveled from one end of the fence to the other, the pieces popping out to permit the flow of water. The bottom of the fence loosened first, the nails pulled out from the wooden piling. The wood sections flapped in the wind for a second before the next wave pulled them down. Large holes appeared in the fence as sections dropped into the water and floated in the surf. The crowd cheered. At the breaker line the ominous humps of several outside large waves could be seen building. They moved in with tremendous speed. The first ones shook the remaining wall. The middle ones crashed into the piling with tons of water. By the last waves the wood was smashed to splinters...

Click here to download the full article.

Like games of chance, but feeling risk-averse? Try BJPA Roulette: click here to get to a random publication. (You can always access this feature by clicking "Random Publication" under the "Publications" tab in the header section of BJPA.)

American Jewish Liberalism, Affiliation, and Denomination

Obama '12

The JTA reports that President Obama's approval rating among American Jews has remained about 14 points higher than the general public's according to the latest Gallup numbers, despite some public disagreement and distrust between the Administration and Israel's government.

This may come as something of a surprise to many Jews who feel, based on anecdotal evidence or personal experience, that the Jewish community is becoming more conservative, or at least more trusting of conservatives when it comes to Israel. Dr. Steven Windmueller conducted a survey earlier this year of some 2,300 Jewish respondents, finding "a distinctive Jewish conservative voice emerging on Israel-related matters and an array of domestic social issues." He also noted "that among highly engaged Jews, those who are active within Jewish religious and communal life, there is a sharp divide on political attitudes and policies."

The emphasis is mine, and it brings up an important factor to keep in mind when bandying about anecdotal evidence among committed and connected Jews: the "feel" of where the community is among strongly affiliated Jews is not accurately going to reflect American Jewry as a whole, because a large portion of American Jewry is not in the rooms we're getting the "feel" for. (Of course, anecdotal evidence is always the weakest kind of evidence, if it can even be called evidence at all.)

Marc Tracy, reacting to the Gallup news, points to a different distinction as one of the more interesting angles to this story:

 About half of one group of Jewish voters has approved of Obama over the past three months, while more than one third of the same group disapproved of him; more than two-third of another group of Jewish voters has approved of Obama over the past three months, while only one quarter of this group disapproved of him. The two groups? The former, who are not as bullish on Obama, attend synagogue weekly or nearly weekly; the latter, who do still like the president by and large, attend synagogue rarely or never. The observance gap, to my mind, is the more fascinating dynamic.

Tracy is right to highlight the interplay of the religious and political spectra as deserving more attention, but I might caution him against assuming that observance per se is the critical factor. A reminder is in order regarding the findings of my esteemed boss Steven M. Cohen, along with Sam Abrams and Judith Veinstein, in their 2008 study of American Jewish political opinion. "[T]he truly significant gap," they found, "is the one that separates Orthodox Jews from all other Jews." Orthodoxy is closely correlated with observance, but as a not-insignificant number of ritually observant Conservative, Conservadox, Reconstructionist, trans-denominational, and even Reform Jews will tell you, the two are not synonymous.

Importantly, the Cohen/Abrams/Veinstein study broke down political preference not only by denomination, but by sub-groupings within denomination based on the proportion of respondents' friends who were Jewish. The result, at least to me, is partially counterintuitive:

Among Orthodox Jews, those whose close friends are all Jewish, almost universally support McCain over Obama (90% vs. 10%), far more than those with mostly, or even fewer, Jewish close friends (60% McCain vs. 40% Obama). However, the impact of having many Jewish friends is the reverse for the non-Orthodox. Among the vast majority of Jews who are not Orthodox, having more Jewish friends is associated with greater support for Obama (and less support for McCain). Support for Obama grows from 68% among those with mostly non-Jewish friends to 77% for those with mostly Jewish friends. In similar fashion, it grows from 68% among those with non-denominational identity (“just Jewish,” “secular,” etc.) to 77% among those who identify as Reform.

Tribal insularity, it seems, has opposite effects within Orthodoxy and non-Orthodoxy! For the Orthodox, the further isolated one is from non-Jewish attachment, the more conservatively one votes, while for the non-Orthodox, insularity tends to perpetuate the liberal politics which have dominated American Jewry since Franklin Roosevelt.

Another helpful reminder from this 2008 study is that Israel is not the one and only issue that concerns American Jewry. "Jews do care about the Israel-Palestine conflict more than other Americans," write Cohen, Abrams and Veinstein:

Yet, with that said, the Israel issue ranked 8th out of 15 issues in importance as a presidential election consideration for Jewish respondents. Aside from the economy (a prime issue of concern for the vast majority of respondents), ahead of Israel on Jewish voters’ minds were such matters as health care, gas prices and energy, taxes, and education. Ranking just below Israel in importance for Jewish respondents were appointments to the Supreme Court and the environment. In fact, when asked to name their top three issues, just 15% of Jewish respondents chose Israel as one of the three, and these were heavily Orthodox Jews.

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.

Video: Building a Passionate Middle Ground

In a video interview, Dr. Micha Goodman of Ein Prat tells BJPA Director Prof. Steven M. Cohen that religious Israelis are too closed, and secular Israelis are too disconnected from tradition. We need a passionate middle ground, he says. Watch on YouTube, or below.

 

International Agunah Day

Today is Ta'anit Esther, and also International Agunah Day, a day recognizing the struggles of agunot, "anchored/bound ones," Orthodox Jewish women whose husbands refuse to grant their wives a get (religious divorce), even though the two no longer live as a couple -- preventing the woman, according to traditional Jewish law, from remarrying.

A few resources: Dr. Rachel Levmore, a rabbinical court advocate and anti-get-refusal activist, has articles on International Agunah Day in both the Jewish Press and the Jerusalem Post. The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) also has a page of resources and links on the agunah issue. (In 2007 they placed this six-page advertisement in the NY Jewish Week on Ta'anit Esther / International Agunah Day.)

BJPA holdings include many publications touching on this issue. Among them are:

Layers Upon Layers

This article by Akiva Novick about Israeli Haredi "Taliban Women" who cover themselves (and their daughters) from head to toe seems, at first glance, to be simply a portrait of a small, radical fringe group well outside the mainstream of Israeli Haredi society. But there are a number of elements of the story which offer glimpses of much larger problems within Israeli Haredi society, far beyond the confines of this small group.

It is troubling enough that anyone feels the need to invent a new restriction upon Jewish women being seen. Such a move, as a sudden, contemporary innovation, takes on a very different flavor from a Muslim woman's decision to follow an ancient practice which has been in her family, or at least her faith, for many generations. (This is not to take a position regarding Islamic discussions over modesty standards; it is only to assert that this Haredi fringe group is doing something entirely different since they are not operating on the basis of a well-established custom.) And it is good to read in the article that the majority of Haredi society opposes this new, restrictive decision.

But the manner of some of the opposition is equally troubling on its own. "'Taliban women' and their daughters are outcasts on haredi streets," Novick writes:

They encounter looks of disgust, bullying and constant humiliation. M., a member of the anti-Zionist Hasidic movement Toldos Aharon... has seen young men come up to these women trying to pull off their head covers. "There are guys who will approach a woman and say things like: 'You look like a suicide bomber' or 'I guess your face is ugly if you keep it hidden.' There are also those who spit on them and curse at them, or just badger them with cameras so they'll run away."

 Yes, there's no better way to stand up for the dignity of women than by cruelly bullying women. How nicethat we can also pull in a stereotype of all Muslim women who dress a certain way as being terrorists.

Speaking of terrorism, I am also troubled by the "Taliban women" label itself, implying an equivalence between women who are seeking to start a new custom within a religion to a regime which used extreme violence to enforce their restrictive dress code against all women in the territory they controlled.

Novick goes on to write that some of the Haredi opposition to this trend comes from the mere fact of its being an innovation:

"We can accept young girls who returned to their faith as long as they accept the rules and speak Yiddish," said [a Haredi] businessman. "What worked for our fathers for hundreds of years still works today, and no newly-religious person can change that."

Yes, this new light-of-day-phobic dress code is in the same category as the terrible transgression of speaking modern Hebrew instead of Yiddish. But wait! There's more...

A Neturei Karta delegation approached haredi rabbis and presented them with findings regarding the "Taliban women." They said these women refused to have sexual intercourse with their husbands or take off their head covers even when they walk around the house or in the mikveh.

Now here is Neturei Karta, a different radical fringe group, a group which often seems to have no objection at all to Holocaust denial or genuine terrorism. But women holding back sexually from their husbands? This is unacceptable. (Paging Aristophanes?)

So let's recap: some women want to restrict women from being seen, but they are being opposed violently by men who insult them by way of stereotyping Muslim women as terrorists. Some of these men are upset that the women are doing anything new (Heaven forbid), and others are upset because they are withholding sex from their husbands. All these crimes, to some of the men in question, are worse than Holocaust denial or terrorism, which is to say equal to the crime of not speaking Yiddish, but don't worry, because to some others they are only as bad as the Taliban.

To be clear, the above paragraph is a gross oversimplification. It is unfair, and is meant to be tongue-in-cheek. But like the voluminous clothing worn by the women in this story, the story itself is many-layered and heavy. I wish I could conclude it was not worthy of attention. Too often the media tends to play up negative aspects of the Haredi world, and downplay the positive sides of living in an insular community. I would like to avoid jumping on the bandwagon of criticizing Haredim. Orthodox Judaism has many interpretations, and includes many conceptions of gender which are a far cry from the impulse on display in this group. See, for just one example, this 1995 article by Rivkah Myers Shifren, which argues that traditional (Orthodox) gender roles in ritual do not in any way constitute degradation or "inequality" for women.

But just as an observer of Orthodoxy would be unwise to ignore the liberal/traditionalist perspective represented by Myers Shifren, it would be unwise to ignore this group of far-right Haredi women, small though the group may be -- and it would be even less wise to ignore the larger issues and questions indicated by the reactions to that group from the Haredi mainstream.

Negotiating Civil Liberties: Inclusion for Some

Last week, Lynn Schusterman, chair of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, wrote an op-ed, "Embrace LGBT Jews as vital members of the community" calling on Jewish organizations to enact non-discrimination hiring policies that specifically mention sexual orientation, and called on funders to make their support contingent on the adoption and practice of such policies.

Adopting formal non-discrimination policies -- and ensuring their implementation -- will help us achieve two goals: 1, they will indicate to LGBT individuals that the Jewish community is committed to full LGBT inclusion; and 2, they will guarantee that our institutions are walking the talk when it comes to being welcoming and diverse.

This week, Nathan Diament, director of the Institute for Public Affairs of the Orthodox Union, wrote a response, "Don’t exclude in the name of inclusion", arguing that the religious values of Orthodox organizations require them to practice discriminatory hiring based on sexual orientation. Therefore,  Schusterman's suggestion, if fully enacted, would result in a severe reduction of funding to Orthodox institutions.

Logical.

As it happens, the government of the United States of America has this same problem!

For over a decade, some in Congress have been trying to pass ENDA (Employment Non-Discrimination Act), an act that makes sexual orientation and gender identity protected grounds for non-discrimination. As Schusterman, notes, thousands of Jews have lobbied in support of that act. As Diament notes, some of those Jews lobbied in support of an exception for religious organizations to permit them to keep legally discriminating based on sexual orientation and gender identity. (That exception is incorporated into the current version of the act).

According to Diament, that exception "protects the right of religious communities to make their own employment decisions in this sensitive area.” In contrast, Schusterman's proposal to Jewish donors would "admittedly in the private sphere, champion gay rights over religious liberty without even acknowledging the competing values, let alone trying to strike a balance between them" and "expand some civil rights at the expense of others." In effect, he accuses Schusterman of hypocrisy.

In fact, several Jewish organizations (Anti-Defamation League, Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and the National Council of Jewish Women) recently collaborated on an amicus brief[pdf] (in a case about whether universities that receive government funding could provide support to student groups that practice discrimination), and specifically mentioned the spectre of the exemption of religious organizations that receive federal funding from non-discrimination requirements as an outcome to be avoided (in that case, discrimination based on religion, as opposed to sexuality).

So Shusterman is advocating for the same policy for Jewish funders as these Jewish organizations advocated for government funders. On the other hand, the Union of Orthodox Congregations of America and Agudath Israel of America supported the opposing amicus brief[pdf].

I don't see hypocrisy here - I see different (and consistent) views on how the balance between religious liberty and gay rights (as Diament puts it) should be struck. The ADL, JCPA, and NCJW strike in favor of gay rights, and the OU and Agudath Israel strike in favor of religious liberties.

Because what Diament obscures ("The Orthodox Union is on record supporting carefully crafted initiatives that seek to ensure principles of tolerance, anti-discrimination and the fair treatment of all citizens") is that only one value can predominate. In both cases, CLS v. Martinez, and in the case of Shusterman's proposal, the OU is on the record supporting religious liberties over gay rights.

The OU's consistent position, whether with regard to public or private funding, makes it less surprising that would Diament would uncritically equate an act of the federal government to the act of a private organization. One key difference, of course, is that if Schusterman's proposal were enacted, Orthodox institutions could continue to seek funding from Orthodox donors whereas religious organizations could not so easily escape the jurisdiction of the American government.

But there is an even bigger problem with Diament's conflation of the religious liberties of religious organizations versus the government and the religious liberties Orthodox organizations versus private Jewish funders:

Diament is in fact arguing is that religious liberty should allow Orthodox Jews to discriminate against gays and lesbians, but that private Jewish (non-Orthodox) funders should not have the religious liberty to 'discriminate' in favor of civil rights for gays and lesbians.

This position holds water if you believe that Orthodox Judaism represents a legitimate religious conviction worthy of protection and non-Orthodox Judaism does not.

Diament also makes an ethical/fraternal argument that Jews who donate to Jewish organizations (whether $5 to their local federation or $2M in the care of their own foundation) have an obligation to support Orthodox institutions that discriminate against lesbians and gays - not doing so would "inflict real harm upon many already underfunded schools and other charities and those they serve [and] would drive a wedge through the heart of those institutions designed to bring our diverse community together." Yet, he makes no argument that Orthodox funding should support Jewish GLBT organizations and is actually arguing that Orthodox institutions must have the right to discriminate against lesbian and gay Jews.

This position holds water if you believe that supporting and including Orthodox Jews is more important than supporting and including gay and lesbian Jews.

I (personally) would suggest (beg, plead, shout, implore) that Lynn Schusterman and others not accept Diament's closing instruction that they must, "if their real goal is liberty and justice for all," follow the example of the Orthodox Union.

(Finally, I invite you to peruse some of BJPA's materials on religious liberty and human rights and LGBT issues which cover a fair variety of perspectives, whereas the opinions here are mine alone).

[Cross-posted at Jewschool]