Misguided Rabbinical Priorities

Nowadays Orthodoxy is all about sex. Immodesty, promiscuity, homosexuality: the public discourse of the Orthodox Jewish world seems disproportionately to take place in the bedroom, the dressing room, and the closet.

Gender is also a related hot topic. What are women? What can and can’t they do? What can they, but shouldn’t they? And what about men? Can men marry each other? Live together? Adopt children? Out of the closet? In the closet? On the bima? In the shul?

This discourse isn’t much of a conversation. Discourse comes from an Old French word and implies ‘back and forth’ – or, in the language of Talmud study with which all Orthodox rabbis are familiar, ‘shakla ve-tarya,’ give and take.  But the public discourse of the Orthodox has become — proudly, defiantly, and almost by definition — all give and no take: an unending series of pronouncements and responses, murmurings, blog-posts, unending comment threads and online flame-wars. These “conversations” are merely the strident repetition of entrenched positions. More and more I understand the expression, “it’s like talking to a wall.” 

While these non-conversations about sex and gender proliferate, the incidence of child rape, verbal and physical abuse of women, poverty, weakening schools and riven families, to name only a few crises, increases. Fewer children keep Shabbat and more adults work like dogs to send their children to day schools, sacrificing time they might otherwise actually spend with them.

Sex has nothing to do with most of the problems I’ve listed, and the energies that are put into hand-wringing and petition-signing over sexual ethics could be far better placed.

The case in point: recently Rabbi Steve Greenberg, who was ordained by Yeshiva University, subsequently came out as gay, and has argued that there is no contradiction between being gay and Orthodox, performed a wedding in which he sanctified the union of two men. The media reported that an Orthodox rabbi performed a gay marriage and all kinds of rabbis began talking to their favorite walls. Then a group of over one hundred rabbis got together to declare that this was not an orthodox wedding and that no such wedding was possible. Big News! The Torah and Orthodox understanding of Halakha prohibit gay marriage. Who knew?

An Orthodox rabbi myself, I happen to agree that this was not an Orthodox wedding. But I think these rabbis’ response is a much bigger problem than two Orthodox gay men seeking a way to dignify their relationship through marriage.

Who do these rabbis think is listening? What compelled them to lash out? Do they anticipate an impending rash of orthodox gay marriages? Did their synagogue Executive Directors ask for guidance with all the calls to book gay weddings? Do they think that Jews to the left of Orthodoxy need to be reminded that the orthodox establishment considers them wrong?

These rabbis bang on their lecterns and chests and fight for attention to keep themselves in the center of attention: to declare that they are in charge and that they alone define Judaism. And in so doing, in drawing lines where no one is looking for them, they routinely miss the places that everyone is looking for wisdom and moral guidance in the problems they face in their actual lives.

We are bereft of relevant leadership and opinions that matter. In recent years we’ve watched as an increasing number of aspects of orthodox Jewish life have become narrower. Kashrut is beset with polarizing stringencies. Increasing swathes of public life (synagogues, buses, sidewalks, funerals) are becoming less hospitable to women. Conversion is a minefield and women remain bound in unwanted marriages by rabbis who refuse to respond.

And one hundred rabbis saw fit to speak out…on a marriage that no one that they are speaking to was likely even to have known about.

I believe Orthodoxy no longer exists as a coherent ideology. There are gangs of rabbis in different clubs. Sometimes they work together, sometimes against each other, depending on their interest of the moment. In the meantime they have so eroded their moral and legal footing that even the once faithful are falling away. So many people have gone down this path that even the fundamental practices of our faith have become twisted and unrecognizable. And here we are at another moment of niggling erosion where rabbis who could spend valuable time and energy have misplaced their power and in so doing lost a little more of what little relevance they may have left.

 Email: rabbi@brown.edu

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