Posts Tagged 'human-rights'

The Other Gate of Justice

I recently read a compelling article by Prof.  Chaim Saiman in Cross Currents.  In his piece If Trayvon Were Tuvia: The Orthodox (Non)response to the Zimmerman Verdict Prof. Saiman lays out a compelling thought experiment. If Trayvon was a Tuvia would the Orthodox Jewish community have reacted the same way?  He concludes that while he thinks it is legitimate for the Orthodox community to start with our own interests showing some concern for this case would have gone a long way in the larger community. Saiman writes, ” Orthodoxy creates a community that is strong enough to reach beyond its comfort zone and empathize with the Other—even when the Other is distant indeed.”

I was thinking about this while I was looked at this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim. There we read:

You shall make judges and officers in all your gates, which the Lord your God gives you, tribe by tribe; and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. “(Deuteronomy 16:18)

We all understand the importance of law and its enforcement. In the wake of the Zimmerman case we are all hard pressed to overlook the issues with law enforcement in maintaining social order and the inherent issues of the lack of justice with our existing social order. What is the significance of the Torah having these judges stationed at the gates?

It seems that elsewhere in the Bible we see the gate as the sight of law.  For example, Boaz took Ruth to the gate to announce their getting married (Ruth 4:1). In the world before websites, the city gate was the best sight to communicate information to the masses. But, it also seems that the Israelite judges were philosopher kings who were charged to not only to know the law, but to administer it. In the book of Judges, the judges seem to be better warriors then jurists. In light of this we might think that the judges were stationed at the gates to protect the people inside the city walls. We might conclude that the role of the judge is to stand his or her ground and protect the city. Is the job of today’s judge to keep the denizens of the law safe from the outsiders? Prof. Saiman’s comments stir us to ask who is the insider and who is the outsider to the law. In our society is Tuvia included in the same ways that Trayvon is excluded from the law? For so much of history we were the outsiders to the law. How could we stand idly by as others are excluded?  In the seeking of justice, the judge cannot pervert the law, but how can s/he do so without seeming judgmental?  In my mind, today’s judges should stand there at the gate trying to wave down passers-by and to usher them into the law.

With the advent of Elul, I believe we all need to be thinking about how to include more people in the law and not exclude them. It is the time when  Ha Melech B’Sade- the King is in the field  (Likkutei Torah, Re’eh 32b). God is not in God’s castle , hiding behind the gates of the law, or even standing guard at the gate. God has gone out beyond the gates welcoming us back . In order for us all to do teshuvah, and return, we need to figure out ways in which we can help include everyone equally under the law even or especially the Other.

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In Your Face Empathy

In BeShalach, last week’s Torah portion, we learned of the splitting of the sea. There we read, “And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and God caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all the night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided.” (Exodus 14: 21) At the start of Yitro, this week’s Torah portion we learn that Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law comes to meet Moses and the Israelites. There we read, ” Now Yitro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses, and for Israel His people, how that the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt.” ( Exodus 18:1) Why did Yitro come? He heard of the great miracles of the Exodus, especially the splitting of the sea. But, how did he hear? When discussing the miracle of the splitting of the sea, the Sages rationalized that this exception to the rule of science, must have happened every where on the world if it happened at all. Rashi (on Exodus 14:21) brings down the idea  (from the Mehilta and Shemot Rabba 21:6) that “all the waters of the world also split at that time” .

So the water in Yitro’s cup divided, but why did he run to get Zipporah and the grand kids in the car to see Moses?  The miracle of the splitting of the sea was not just that the Isrealites escaped their slave masters, but that it created a narrative with which everyone could relate. The story was not in a far off sea, but right there on our table. All too often we are not sympathetic to a cause until we connect with it on a person level. It is easy to turn a blind eye to someone who is suffering, until you look that person in the eyes.  In my mind this points a deep lesson in the power on empathy.

I was thinking about this lesson  when I saw a recently posted TED talk. In this video photographer iO Tillett Wright pushes us to see past the having check boxes like “female,” “male,” “gay” or straight”. She is the creator of Self Evident Truths—an ongoing project to document the wide variety of experiences in LGBTQ America. So far, she has photographed about 2,000 people for the project. Her goal: 10,000 portraits and a nationwide rethinking of discriminatory laws. Please watch:

In the words of Jewish Philosopher  Emmanuel Levinas, “the Other faces me and puts me in question and obliges me . . . the face presents itself, and demands justice. (Totality and Infinity 207, 294) In the spirit of Yitro, it is hard looking at the pictures of iO Tillett Wright and not heeding  the call and working for equality and justice for all people regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation. When we see the humanity in another person, we cannot help but have empathy for that person. We feel that we are connected. And as Yitro teaches us, that is just what family does. Regardless if it is for a celebration or morning, we show up.

Modeling Respect

The Shulchan Aruch (493:1) reports on the practice of not getting married between Passover and Shavuot – until Lag B’Omer, because during this time the students of Rabbi Akiva perished. Their deaths came to an end (or at least a break) on Lag B’Omer. Why did the students of Rabbi Akiva die? And why would we mourn their death by refraining from getting married?

We can start to answer these questions by looking at the Gemara in Yevamot. There  we learn:

Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of disciples from Gabbata to Antipatris; and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect. The world remained desolate until Rabbi Akiva came to our Masters in the South and taught the Torah to them. These were Rabbi Meir,  Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yose, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua; and it was they who revived the Torah at that time. A Tanna taught: “All of them died between Passover and Shavuot”.  (Yevamot 62b)

Rabbi Akiba’s students died because they did not treat each other with respect. It would be surprising to learn that one student of this great tanna of the middle of the 2nd century did not learn such a basic lesson. What is the additional significance of it being 24,000?

Despite his humble beginnings as a shepherd Rabbi Akiba became a tremendous scholar. And while he had a tremendous effect on Jewish life, he was not without flaws. We learn in the Gemara that during the 24 years in which he accumulated these 24,000 students he did not see his wife once (Ketubot 62b-63a). Rabbi Akiva gave his wife credit for all of the Torah they learned in this time. So while he told his students explicitly that they were all indebted to his wife, living apart from his wife for all of those years Rabbi Akiva did not show his student the daily habits of respect. How were his students to learn how to treat each other with respect if Rabbi Akiba did not model this for them?

Today being Lag B’Omer , we should take a moment and reflect on how we should treat each other with respect and how we might teach this lesson to others. Lately there is a lot of conversation as to what is a legal marriage. Many hide their homophobia and bigotry behind their traditional hetero-normative assumptions of marriage of the religious establishment. While they have every right to marginalize people who do not live by their standards within the context of their religion, in a country that claims a division between church and state this should have no bearings on US law. It is for the very reason that marriage is a sacrament that the state should not get involved in  limiting these rights to heterosexual couples.

It is not despite the fact that I am an Orthodox Rabbi, but because of this fact that I think the government should allow same-sex marriage. How are we any different from the students of Rabbi Akiba? How can we in the religious establishment hope to teach people about respect when we do not model it ourselves. Looking no further than the  horrible divorce rate in this country it is clear that we do not model this respect  in hetero-normative marriage. And we surely do not model this by barring two consensual adults who love each other  from enjoying the civil rights of a heterosexual couple.

As religious people, we should welcome this “challenge” of same-sex marriage as an opportunity to define marital commitment in the 21st century. Getting lost in the form of a wedding completely misses the conversation about the content of a marriage. Who better to guide the conversation about commitment?  It is laughable to outsource the definition of a marriage to the state. We clearly do not want to leave this conversation of commitment in the hands of politicians. We want to be the ones crafting the conversation on what makes a life-long commitment work. And in the end we have to realize that we cannot just preach respect, we need to model it.  So now with Lag B’Omer behind us we can all get married.


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