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  What Do Our Neighbors Believe?  

JUDAISM Christianity | Islam
What issues are the most hotly debated by members of the religion?
by Howard Greenstein

Clearly, one of the most hotly-debated issues in Judaism, as in almost all religious circles, is homosexuality. Orthodox and Conservative Judaism rest their opposition to gay and lesbian rights on the biblical prohibition of toevah (abomination), which they conclude was a reference to homosexual behavior. Same-gender sexual activity therefore was and remains a defiance of divine will.

Reform Judaism, however, appeals to a broader understanding of the biblical term. Toevah in the biblical context alludes not to general homosexuality but to cultic prostitution. What is abominable for the homosexual is what is abominable for the heterosexual. Promiscuity, coercion, rape, sexual exploitation, infidelity are all abominations. What is abominable for people of all sexual orientations is disrespect for another human being.

As Rabbi Harold Schulweis has noted, the Bible is rooted in history and history changes. In the time of the Bible, the laws of leprosy were based on the assumption that it was contagious and that it was a punishment for sins. But they did not know then of Hansen’s disease; they did not know that it was not contagious. Knowing what we do today, who would treat the leper according to the faulty presupposition of knowledge in that period of time?

In addition, according to early rabbinic understanding, a deaf mute was considered to be retarded, mentally incompetent, an imbecile not qualified to serve or witness or be counted in the minyan or able to contract marriage or divorce. Again, that judgment was grounded on empirically false data. We now know that the impaired speech and hearing of deaf mutes relates in no way to their native intelligence or accountability. In many jurisdictions, therefore, we changed the laws that applied to them.

Similarly, the biblical mind knew nothing of genetically-conditioned gays and lesbians who had no control over their sexual orientation. They assumed that sexual identity was a matter of personal choice and free will. The sages were scientifically in error. Their judgment then cannot be acceptable now without careful review.

Another issue that divides the Jewish community is the definition of Jewish identity with particular reference to patrilineal descent. According to traditional Jewish law, an individual can be Jewish by birth only as the child of a Jewish mother. The father’s identity is irrelevant. This distinction is a rather curious one, especially in the context of biblical Judaism wherein Jewish identity is a matter of patrilineal descent. Clearly, that culture is a patriarchal one in which ancestral lines are traced through the father’s family, not the mother’s. Traditionally, the people of Israel are the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, not Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. Even in contemporary observance, a Jew is called to the reading of the Torah, again in the most traditional circles, by his Hebrew name which links him to his father, not his mother.

Most scholars agree that the practice of associating identity with the mother probably originated in the Middle Ages when Jewish communities were frequently attacked and terrorized in pogroms by hordes of angry mobs. Very often those murderous assaults included the rape of Jewish women whose subsequent children were born without knowing who the father was. In order to ensure the survival and continuity of Jewish life (and the legal legitimacy of the children), the authorities very likely decreed that Jewish identity would follow the faith of the mother whose identity was unmistakable. Since then, in most Jewish circles, a child is considered a Jew if he/she is born of a Jewish mother.

In 1983, however, in response to the increasing incidence of mixed marriage, Reform Judaism issued a statement on patrilineal descent in which it declared that a person could be Jewish by either parent. Although it justified its pronouncement by reference to the historical past cited above, Orthodox and Conservative authorities roundly condemned this departure from the norm, insisting that it would confuse the issue of Jewish identity beyond repair. The debate continues even as these words are written.

Still another issue of continuing controversy is the rights of non-Orthodox Jews in Israel. Although separation of church and state does not exist in Israel as we know it in America, freedom of religion is a fundamental principle of political life. Every religious community enjoys complete autonomy under the officially recognized leadership of its own appointed authority. Indeed, Israel stands alone in the entire Middle East in protecting the right of every religious community to practice its faith without interference.

The Jewish religious community is governed by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate only because the Israeli government empowers them for that purpose for political considerations. As a result, the non-Orthodox segment of the Jewish community must abide by Orthodox regulations in all matters of personal status governing marriage, divorce and conversion. Nonetheless, non-Orthodox Jews have repeatedly challenged the exclusive monopoly of Orthodox authorities in these areas and have achieved a notable measure of success in their litigation before the Israel Supreme Court. Israel inevitably will recognize and respect the diversity of Jewish religious life within its own borders even as it already does everywhere else in the world.

Copyright ©2006 Howard Greenstein

Howard R. Greenstein serves as Rabbi of the Jewish congregation of Marco Island, Florida. He has previously served congregations in Florida, Ohio, and Massachusetts. Greenstein has been a Lecturer at the University of Florida, University of North Florida, and Jacksonville University. He is the author of Judaism: An Eternal Covenant (1983) and Turning Point: Zionism and Reform Judaism (1981).

Excerpts from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions and Answers on Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein, Kendra Hotz, and John Kaltner are used by permission from Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. The book will be available for purchase in December 2006.


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