What issues are the most hotly debated by members of the
by Howard Greenstein
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
©2006 Howard Greenstein
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).
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.