Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Observations about Young at Heart, a Film

Young at Heart, a film

May 26, 2008

I saw the film, Young at Heart the other night. It is documentary about a chorus of seniors that sings rock hits. The filmmaker spends 7 weeks filming them as they rehearse for a new show. It is much more than a film about a group of performers; it is a very moving portrayal of the will to live, the power of art and community, and the triumph of hope over despair. There are a couple of remarkable scenes. The performance at the jail by these octogenarians is a thing to behold. They had just lost a beloved member who died hours before the performance. Yet they sang their hearts out to the prisoners who were visibly moved to tears. The humanity of the moment comes through to the viewer. I was moved to tears. The many poignant moments of the documentary are marked by hilarious and touching interviews of chorus members and funny scenes from the rehearsals. The most remarkable person in Young at Heart is the director, Bob, who brings out remarkable performances from everyone while shepherding the group through loss and illness.

The film asks the question about how we serve others? It also asks the question about how we use our talents as we age? The film also makes us think of the mitzvah of Hidur Pnai Zaken-honoring the elderly. Young at Heart is a beautiful portrayal of this mitzvah in a society that neglects the old and fixates on the young.

I welcome comments to Rabbiblog.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

My Stand on the Question of Gay and Lesbian Marriage in California

My Stand on the Question of Gay and Lesbian Marriage in California

Given May 24, 2008

Rabbi Dov Gartenberg


This past week we witnessed the historic decision of the California Supreme Court to legalize Gay and Lesbian civil marriage in our state. I support this decision and hope that any attempt to roll it back with a Constitutional amendment will be defeated by the electorate. I share with you my perspective on Gay and Lesbian union ceremonies with Jewish tradition so you can understand my perspective on this issue within Judaism.


Several years ago I was asked to perform a commitment ceremony for two Jewish Gay men who are members of my former congregation. This would be a private religious ceremony since the State of Washington had no provision for giving legal weight to their relationship. Their request led to my review of Jewish law and the contemporary deliberations on the issue of homosexuality and Jewish religious life.


    The issues associated with consecrating a Gay or Lesbian relationship within Jewish tradition are very difficult and weighted by pejorative understandings of homosexuality going back to the Torah itself. For instance, in Lev. 18:22 we read, "Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence." In Lev 20:13 we read, "If a man lies with a male as one lies with a woman, the two of them have done an abhorrent thing; they shall be put to death-their bloodguilt is upon them." While all Conservative scholars have shown that the sanctions against homosexuality no longer hold, they disagree on whether to continue to view homosexual sexuality as a 'toevah'-an abomination. . The Movement welcomes Gays and Lesbians as synagogue members and is active in defending the rights of Gays and Lesbians in civil society. This past year the movement in a split decision decided to accept Gay and Lesbian candidates to its rabbinical school.


A few years ago the Law Committee of the Rabbinical Assembly invited several scholars in our Movement to submit essays concerning the question of homosexuality and Jewish law. The papers reveal the wide disparity of views within the movement. My teacher, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, composed the most convincing essay on the subject. He argues that compelling contemporary factors force us to reassess the biblical prohibition on homosexual relations. The biblical prohibition on homosexual behaviors assumes that homosexuality is a matter of choice. According to the predominant scientific opinion of our times, homosexuality is not a matter of choice; rather it is an irreversible orientation over which a person has no control. If this is the case, modern interpreters of Jewish law must take this into account when dealing with the issue of homosexuality.


Dorff argues that we cannot deny what our basic orientation dictates. Quoting a passage from the Talmud Rabbi Dorff suggests the matter is akin to a patient's need for food on Yom Kippur: "When a person says, "I need it," even a hundred doctors say that he does not need it, we listen to him, as Scripture says, 'The heart knows its own bitterness'.


Jewish law assumes that we cannot refrain from the most basic instincts such as eating and sexuality. It regulates, however, the circumstances in which these compulsions may be legitimately met. For example, we may eat, but we must follow the dietary laws and pronounce blessings over our food. We desire sex, but we engage in it within the framework of marriage. This is the Jewish way of sanctity-channeling our natural drives into a holy framework of behaviors and living.


Rabbi Dorff concludes that if homosexuality is an orientation over which a person has no choice, then modern interpreters of Jewish law should hold that homosexual acts, like heterosexual ones, be regulated such that some of these relationships can be sanctified (monogamous and exclusive) while others are regarded as sinful behavior (indiscriminate sex).


In addition to Rabbi Dorff's powerful reasoning, I have experienced directly the pain of many Gay and Lesbians and their families over their exclusion from Jewish life. If we give a message that homosexuals are welcome in the synagogue, but prevent them from sanctifying their committed relationships in our community we add to their suffering and sense of isolation. Let's approach this from the positive side. One of my brothers is Gay. I have seen him sustain a beautiful and loving relationship with his partner of twenty years. I believe that we are doing a great Mitzvah by making it possible for Gay and Lesbian couples to consecrate their relationships.


Rabbi Dorff's essay is a superb example of how a vital religious tradition absorbs new knowledge and evolving moral insights. We have to engage in a deep reading of the Torah to accomplish this, to ask questions not posed by previous generations. We embrace a way of reading the Torah that on the one hand recognizes its continuing sanctity and authority in our lives, while also recognizing the time and context of its outlook. The Torah is not just what is found in the Five Books or in the Talmud or in a Medieval commentary, but also in Rabbi Dorff's wedding of tradition and contemporary insight.


I still do make a distinction between commitment ceremonies and wedding ceremonies within the framework of Jewish law. When I am invited to sanctify the union of a Gay or Lesbian couple, I distinguish between Kiddushin (a wedding ceremony) and a commitment ceremony. I believe the traditional Kiddushin ceremony is built around deep assumptions of the union of a man and a woman. I support the creation of ceremonies and liturgies using blessings the sanctify Gay and Lesbian unions distinct from the Kiddushin ceremony, but carrying the same legal weight of consecration of the relationship in the eyes of Jewish law.


The ceremony that arose as a result of these reflections was also created in the same spirit. I worked with the couple on a commitment ceremony that was distinct from a wedding ceremony. We anchored the new ritual in the ritual language and the feel of a Jewish wedding ceremony, but we crafted language and ritual acts that made this commitment ceremony unique and original. I do look forward to doing similar ceremonies with the knowledge that they will also have the status of civil marriage in the State of California. I welcome Jewish Gay and Lesbian couples to invite me to officiate at their ceremonies and welcome them as couples and families within our congregation.


Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

May 24, 2008

Israel at 60: Is Israel the Beginning of the Sprouting of Our Redemption?

Israel at 60: Is Israel the Beginning of the Sprouting of Our Redemption?

Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

May 23, 2008


The prayer for the welfare of the State of Israel and the Harahaman prayer in the Grace after Meals for the State of Israel contain a formulation that we have said for many years. The formulation is found in many modern Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform rites as well as in the public ceremonies of federations and Jewish community centers. The prayer was written by the Israeli chief rabbinate upon the creation of the state. I would like to reflect on this prayer and what we mean by it as we mark the 60th birthday of the State of Israel.


    "Our Father in Heaven, Rock and Redeemer of the people Israel. Bless the State of Israel, the beginning of the sprouting of our redemption (or as translated in another text, the dawn of our redemption)."


What is the meaning of `reishit tzemichat geulateinu'. Reishit means `the beginning', while tzemichat describes the sprouting of a young plant. The word Tzemah is an allusion to the Messiah in Mishnaic Hebrew as found in the Amidah. In a sense the phrase is a redundancy. It could have read reishit geulateinu-the beginning of our redemption, or tzemichat geulateinu-the sprouting of our redemption. As we shall see, the curious phrase `reishit tzemichat geulateinu' reveals the language of compromise.


    Geulah, meaning redemption is a traditional religious concept with different connotations. The traditional notion of redemption has these principle features:


  1. Geulah will be an era of peace and prosperity ushered in by God through his messiah.
  2. Geulah will be a time of justice and compassion between people.
  3. With Geulah the Jewish people will regain their faith in God and will follow the Torah.
  4. As a result of Geulah the Jews both living and dead will be brought back to the land of Israel where they will witness the restoration of the Jewish commonwealth, the Temple in Jerusalem and the Davidic monarchy.
  5. The Jewish people will no longer be oppressed and will live in security in their land.


    This phrase is not universally accepted by Israelis. .


    For secular Zionists the phrase reishit tzemichat geulateinu is highly questionable if not totally objectionable. Most of the founders of the state were not traditional Jews in any way. The religious notion of redemption was anathema in their eyes. They blamed the suffering of Diaspora Jews on their submissive loyalty to the idea of a divinely dependent redemption. Traditional religious life had value as an instrument of Jewish preservation in the Diaspora. But now the new unfettered Jew living in Israel would bring on a sort of secular redemption without the help of God, by building up the land and creating the State of Israel.


    For many secular Zionists, identification with the historical destiny of the Jewish State is not only necessary for being a Jew; it is also sufficient. Zionism is a more effective tool for making possible the continued existence of the Jewish people in history. A Jew's commitment to the state of Israel is the new substitute for traditional Judaism and its messianic vision.


    Meanwhile, the Ultra-Orthodox Jews, both in Israel and the Diaspora, refuse to recite the prayer Reishit Tzemichat Geulateinu. Their objection derives from a discussion in the Talmud in tractate Ketuvot about the meaning of the Jewish dispersal among the nations. Based on an interpretation in the Song of Songs, Rabbi Zera of Babylonia teaches that Israel must remain in the Diaspora. God stipulates that:


    First, the Jewish people shall not go up to the land of Israel all together as surrounded by a wall (that is they shall not return to Israel en masse); second, that the Holy One, Blessed be He adjured the Jewish people that they shall not rebel against the nations of the world; third is that the Holy One, Blessed be He, adjured the idolaters that they shall not oppress the Jewish people too much while they dwell amongst them.


    Rabbi Zera understands Israel fate amongst the nations as a sort of a three way covenant between the Jewish people, God and the nations. We promise according to Rabbi Zera not to go to Israel en masse unless God brings us there directly. Meanwhile we must stay amongst the nations and the nations will make our lives miserable, but not too miserable.


    Our redemption and our return to the land of Israel will be on God's terms, not our own. The Ultra-Orthodox believe that the restoration of the Jewish nation will be the messianic culmination of the Torah and its vision of history. The authentic Jewish commonwealth will not share the vulnerabilities and weaknesses of the secular Jewish state. The messianic Jewish commonwealth will last forever. It will be free of all the tragic features of human history and most notably free from the historical sufferings of the Jewish people. .


    Therefore, the Ultra-Orthodox do not see a promise of redemption in the secular return to Zion. Moreover, they vehemently reject any attempt to give religious significance to the modern state. The current state is one of heretical Jews and is no different than other nations in its spiritual standing. The Ultra-Orthodox refuse to say reishit tzemichat geulateinu because they do not believe a state started by apikorsim and compromised religious Jews can be the first step to the messianic ingathering of the Jewish people.


    It was the modern religious Zionists, especially the settler movement which established the religious communities in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza advocated for the phrase reishit tzemichat geulateinu. In adopting these words they made an interpretive leap in their understanding of modern Jewish history and the significance of the return to the land. The modern state of Israel may have been settled and governed by secular, non-practicing Jews, but as the third commonwealth matures, God will divert the course of events, turning the Jewish state into a holy nation. Secular Jews planted the seed of the Messianic Days. By resettling the Land, they set the stage for God's dramatic culmination of history. The secular and religious views of the meaning of the modern Jewish state are thus welded together.


    As we observe the 60th birthday of Israel, how do we make sense of this phrase? The Ultra-Orthodox continue to refuse to say it, convinced more than ever that the Jewish State is not what is promised in the messianic teachings of the Talmud and Kabbalah. Many Ultra-Orthodox have come to terms with the reality of the State of Israel which serves as their benefactor, but they accommodate with it just as Jews accommodated with the nations they sojourned in the Diaspora.

The national religious Jews who embraced this phrase have lost faith in the phrase. The evacuation in Gaza and the growing unpopularity of the settlements in recent years have left many of these Jews alienated from the Jewish State. Many of them have a darker vision of Israel of defiant resistance against a compromising and anti religious Jewish state. They understand that the next decades will revolve around the fate of Jewish settlement in the territories.

More and more of them feel that the Messiah will not come from the liberation of the land, but in defense of those who refuse to follow the orders of the State that will likely at some point demand from them to give up their settlements.


For the majority of secular Israelis, the phrase `reishit tzemichat geulateinu' connotes little or no significance. This is not an idealistic time in Israel. Israelis don't see Geulah around the corner, whether religious or secular. Contemporary Israeli culture is focused on the here and now, on keeping the nation strong, while attempting to live as normal lives as possible. This is the modern crisis of meaning in Israel.


The challenge of the poet, the liturgists, the prophets, and the dreamers is to find a new phrase that encapsulates the hope of the Jewish people and the yearnings of our brothers and sisters in Israel. These yearnings may be found in the revival of interest in study of Jewish texts shared by a growing number of Israelis. These yearnings may be found in the spiritual searching that characterizes many secular Israelis.     They may be found in the new story tellers such as Edgar Keret or the blossoming and greater popularity of Israel movies and TV shows.


As we reach the 60th birthday of Israel, the phrase, reishit tzemichat geulateinu, no longer can convey the meaning of Israel for most Israelis. This is the spiritual challenge which is behind the challenge of physical survival that stands before Israel as it looks forward. Most Israelis have no patience for seeing themselves as the vanguard of the Messiah. They dream of having normal lives without fear of violence and war. They will fight for this, however long it takes. But they say emphatically to us, Cut out the messianic stuff.


This is beautifully expressed by the late poet, Yehuda Amichai


Tourists, Part 2
Once I was sitting on the steps near the gate at David's Citadel
and I put down my two heavy baskets beside me. A group of
tourists stood there around their guide, and I became their point
of reference. "You see the man over there with the baskets? A
little to the right of his head there's an arch from the Roman
period. A little to the right of his head." "But he's moving,
he's moving!" I said to myself: Redemption will come only when
they are told, "Do you see that arch over there from the Roman
period? It doesn't matter, but near it, a little to the left and
then down a bit, there's a man who has just bought fruit and
vegetables for his family."