It’s hard to describe what I feel when I watch that video. Matisyahu could have lay low and shied away from any content that might be controversial or conceived as political after they tried to boycott him. But he didn’t. He got on that stage and sang, right in the faces of those who discriminate against him because of his heritage while denying him his right to his historic homeland: “3,000 years with no place to be/And they want me to give up my milk and honey/Don’t you see, it’s not about the land or the sea/Not the country but the dwelling of His majesty… Years gone by, about sixty/Burn in the oven in this century/And the gas tried to choke, but it couldn’t choke me… Caught up in these ways, and the world’s gone craze/Don’t you know it’s just a phase… Chop down all of them dirty ways/That’s the price that you pay for selling lies to the youth/No way, not okay… Ain’t no one gonna break my stride/Ain’t no one gonna pull me down/Oh no, I got to keep on moving/Stay alive”
Instead of saying, “See? I have nothing to do with Israel, there’s no reason to boycott me,” Matisyahu said, “As a Jew, I have a historic and spiritual connection to the land of Israel, and it has nothing to do with politics or oppression of Palestinians, so I have nothing to hide. But your boycott movement has everything to do with discrimination and antisemitism. You hypocrites.” He stood up for himself, he stood up for me, he stood up for the Jewish people, and he stood up for Israel, right in the face of BDS.
That, my friend, is Jewish chutzpah right there, and I am brimming with nachas.
(Jewish what? Brimming with what? Stay tuned for my next post… 😛 )
You are not on Facebook, so you didn’t witness this phenomenon: this morning my feed was divided between those with a “rainbow-fied” profile picture, and those without. As you probably heard, the Supreme Court of the USA made a historic decision last week, making gay marriage legal throughout the United States.
I did not change my profile picture, because I can’t really say I “support gay marriage,” but I do support marriage equality, and in my heart, I am happy for them.
Homosexuality is a very tough issue in Judaism. The Torah explicitly forbids sexual intercourse between men. So as a rule, Orthodox Judaism is “against” homosexuality in that we believe it–or at least the consummation of a male homosexual relationship–is forbidden by God. But if you break this down, it becomes a lot more complex. The Torah’s statement doesn’t apply to women, and the prohibition against female homosexuality is totally rabbinical. Is it really a statement on homosexuality in general, or just on that one act of consummation, or even just on that one act in the context of idol worship? It seems clear to me that the original intention of the text, especially in calling it an “abomination”, was referring to pagan rituals, not to a loving relationship between consenting adults.
This is one of the issues that really tests my faith. Why would God create people with an attraction to the same sex, and then forbid them from ever acting on it? That just seems cruel to me. I don’t know why God would do this. This is not the only issue on which the Torah seems to demand an incredibly difficult sacrifice–not impossible, but one I am very grateful I have never had to face. So while I do believe in the Torah, and believe that for reasons I don’t understand, God created this very difficult situation, I cannot but empathize with those who struggle with it, and completely understand if they fail to live up to the Torah’s standards on the matter.
The truth is that I think the discomfort in the Orthodox community is less about the Torah prohibition and more about stigma. Yes, the Torah forbids homosexuality in severe terms. It also forbids eating shellfish or pork, working on the Sabbath, and eating on Yom Kippur in very severe terms. And yet we do not treat people who don’t keep kosher or Shabbat with suspicion or disgust; we don’t reject them from our communities; we don’t get upset if a democratic country makes a law that makes it legal to work on Shabbat or sell shellfish. So what business is it of mine whether it is legal for a man to marry another man, or a woman to marry another woman? Some might argue that it “lends legitimacy” to something that we think is wrong. I think this is trying to bar the door after the horse is gone. The Western world already sees marriage equality as a progressive value. Game over.
Maybe instead of concerning ourselves with whether a pair of people is allowed to sign a paper in a courthouse and call their union a marriage, we should be thinking about how to accommodate the needs of the members of our own communities who struggle with this issue, and figure out how we can offer them better choices. Some of them choose to raise traditional families despite their sexual orientation. We should help them achieve this if that is what they wish. Some of them choose to stay in the religious community despite the fact that they cannot fulfill this particular commandment. That should be their right, and it is no one else’s business what goes on in their bedrooms, any more than it is anyone else’s business whether a couple keeps the laws of family purity. In any case, we should not force them, as a society, to live with secrets or shame because of their sexual orientation.
Can we, the Orthodox Jewish community, enshrine homosexuality and call it a marriage according to our beliefs and values? No, we can’t. Can we say it’s not a sin according to our beliefs? No, we can’t. We can’t, and shouldn’t be expected to, compromise our beliefs. But we can have compassion and empathy for homosexuals. We can let people know that if they struggle with this it is not their fault, and that we all fall short of the standards the Torah demands of us sometimes, and that while we think the “right” thing to do according to the Torah would be to act against their orientation, we know how difficult and painful and harmful that might be, and we understand if they can’t do it. We can try to help them live fulfilling, happy lives and feel a part of the Jewish community despite this struggle.
I think from the perspective of the state, marriage is not about religion or love–it is about legal rights. Therefore, I don’t think it makes any sense for gay marriage to be illegal. We can argue from now until next Tuesday about what marriage is and what it means and whether gay marriage fits into that category. But that’s not what this whole thing is about. This is about legal rights. And everyone should be equal under the law. And just as the race or religion of each member of a couple shouldn’t make any difference from the perspective of the law, their gender shouldn’t make any difference either. I don’t think it has anything to do with religion. It says absolutely nothing about what marriage is according to this church or that synagogue or the other mosque. That is a different matter entirely.
The Orthodox Union released a statement on the topic expressing a concern about balancing the new law with protecting the religious freedom of institutions for whom gay marriage is not possible or compatible with their beliefs. That is the part of their statement that I very much agree with and think should be addressed in all states. (I have, shall we say, reservations about other parts of it.)
At the end of the day, I see the Supreme Court’s decision as a victory for a country that strives to grant equal rights to all its citizens. And I am happy for the couples who will now be able to enjoy the legal rights they deserve. And I wish them all the joy in the world. And I will keep loving and believing in the Torah and the Orthodox interpretation of it–and asking God tough questions about it, knowing that there are no easy answers.
I was going to post Part II of “Different Kinds of Jews,” but it felt pretty ironic to be posting specifically about our differences and bitterest conflicts on the eve of the first annual Unity Day. The day was established in memory of Eyal Yifrach, Gil-ad Sha’ar and Naftali Frankel, who were kidnapped and murdered by Palestinian terrorists on the 16th of Sivan (tonight/tomorrow’s Hebrew date) one year ago.
You and I were in touch around this time last year, and I included you on my e-mail update list, so you know about the events of last summer and how they affected me. Nonetheless, I want to write a little bit about it from the perspective of a year later.
Eyal, Gil-ad and Naftali were three teenagers who studied in the Hebron area and lived in central Israel. They were waiting at a bus stop around a 25-minute drive from here. A car stopped for them, driven by two Palestinians, terrorists affiliated with Hamas. At this point I should explain that hitchhiking is extremely common and generally considered safe in this area, as a result of the strong sense of community and the abysmal public transportation.
We now know that the teens were shot and murdered by the terrorists, and then hastily buried in a field north of Hebron. But at the time all we knew was that they were missing, and the search for them led to a wide-scale operation in Hebron and the area, leading to clashes, Palestinian casualties, and heightened tensions. The bodies of the teens were found on June 30th, 2014.
In those 18 days, the entire country held its breath. We obsessively checked the news. Countless prayer groups were formed. I took my son to a Psalm-reading session that was organized for children. There was a very, very strong sense of unity and solidarity. 30,000 Jews gathered to pray at the Western Wall for the safe return of the teens. 75,000 people from all walks of life came to a solidarity rally and concert at Rabin Square. And when the teens’ bodies were found, the entire country fell into deep mourning. Vigils were held all over the country, lighting candles, singing sad songs.
Walking outside that day, it felt like Tisha B’Av, the day we mourn the destruction of the Temple (post forthcoming). You could see the sadness in every eye in the street, feel the intense despair in the air. I saw my neighbor in the stairwell that day and didn’t say a word, just touched her shoulder.
Look. As you very well know, Jews argue with each other a lot. It is one of our best and worst characteristics. Heated debate is a national pastime, especially when it comes to politics. And sometimes things get ugly. But at the end of the day–we share a passionate loyalty to one another and care deeply about each other, and that comes through in times of crisis. You know how I’m always referencing the joke, “Two Jews, three opinions?” At the funeral of the teens, Rabbi Dov Zinger said, “Two Jews, three opinions, but one heart.”
This came through during the war, too. 90% of Israeli Jews supported the operation in Gaza. Getting 90% of Israeli Jews to agree on ANYTHING is nothing short of a miracle. And there were miracles. If not for the kidnapping and subsequent escalation, Hamas would have been able to carry out a massive surprise terror attack through that network of tunnels, which they had planned to do very shortly after the teens were kidnapped. I recently saw a video of an interview with an IDF commander who told how a catastrophic attack from the terror tunnels was thwarted by the actions of some oblivious Jews from Bnei Brak who had that field cleared because of a number of halakhic strictures.
And there was unity. In one of my updates, I sent the following list:
An acquaintance of mine from high school told the following story: she was driving on Highway 431 between Rehovot and Tel Aviv when the siren sounded. She didn’t know what to do, but she saw other drivers pulling over so she followed suit, got out of the car and got down. She has always been afraid of loud noises, and she heard huge explosions overhead and felt so vulnerable. Finally when it was over she walked back to her car and found herself starting to have an anxiety attack–crying hysterically and shaking like a leaf. A man who had pulled over beside her noticed her and walked over to ask if she was okay. She said “no”. The man just stood there with her, soothing her and telling her it would soon pass, and did not leave her side until she had calmed down and was ready to continue her drive.
Other stories and pictures have been circulating of perfect strangers rushing over to children taking cover on the street and protecting them with their bodies.
A million videos of the soldiers dancing and singing on the border–not to celebrate death, the way the terrorists do, but to celebrate life, singing “Am Yisrael Chai” and “the Eternal Nation does not fear a long journey”.
Solidarity with the south. Tons of goodies and volunteers streaming into the rocket-stricken cities and running activities for the kids. And all kinds of activities and “fun days” arranged for them in safer areas.
There has been a constant, constant flow of pizza, goodies, essentials, and letters from citizens to the soldiers. I don’t think I remember seeing anything of this scale in the previous wars I’ve been here for.
There is a picture circulating of a tank decorated with children’s drawings and letters sent to the soldiers. Unlike Hamas, they guard themselves not with our children’s lives, but with their love.
People making aliyah (immigrating to Israel). A few hundred French Jews arrived recently, saying that they feel safer in the bomb shelters in Israel than walking down the streets of Paris with a kippah on. (By the way, if you think the horrible anti-Semitic demonstrations are limited to Europe, think again; anti-Semitic activity has spiked around the world, including the United States, Canada, and New Zealand.) Someone I know just made aliyah with her family through Nefesh B’Nefesh; not a single person canceled or postponed plans because of the situation.
It is very difficult to convey what we went through last summer. Just today we had a national security drill with the air raid siren, and even though I was expecting it and knew it was a drill, that rising and falling wail never fails to make my heart pound and my skin crawl. During and after the war, we all joked with each other about “Phantom Siren Syndrome”–jumping out of our skin at any sound that resembled the beginning of the siren, like an ambulance or a motorcycle accelerating. Still, it was not my first experience with a grim security situation (the height of the Second Intifada in 2002 was MUCH worse), nor with ducking for cover at the wail of an air raid siren (Second Lebanon War, 2006, a few months before we met); nor with doing that as a mother (Operation Pillar of Defense, 2012). The thing that was extraordinary about this war was the incredible level of unity. And that is why Unity Day and the Unity Prize that were established in memory of the teens feels so appropriate. If there is one thing I hope I never forget, it’s that feeling of love from Jews all over the country and Israel supporters all over the world, that sense of oneness. Thank you, Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali, for showing us what we are capable of.
I don’t know if you know this about me, but I am fascinated with languages. Recently I’ve been on a very strict regimen of learning Spanish on DuoLingo. I’ve been practicing almost every day since the beginning of the summer, and creo que puedo decir que mi castellano es mucho mejor ahora. O, se puede decir, es existente. 😛 They say that people with musical abilities tend to be better at grasping languages, and in these past few months I’ve developed a theory why. When I immerse myself in a new language, I start hearing words, phrases and sounds from it echoing in my thoughts, much the way I get a catchy song stuck in my head.
Anyway, what I’ve found in the last few days is that the language reverberating in my head has not, for a change, been Spanish.
It’s been French.
Three guesses why. :-/
I studied French as a third language in eighth and ninth grade. Personally, in retrospect, I think they should have been teaching us Arabic. But given that those years were the height of the second Intifada, and that it was a religious school that was not supposed to have a political affiliation but quietly arranged buses to anti-disengagement protests… you can imagine that maybe some among the staff and the parents might not have been so thrilled with that choice. So French it was. And it so happened that in eighth grade, I had a unique opportunity to travel to Paris with my school choir. We visited several Jewish schools and communities in Paris, and when we weren’t performing, we toured. It was my first time in Europe, and my maternal grandparents had firmly instilled within me an appreciation for high culture, art, music and travel, so I was well trained to appreciate Paris. 😉 The trip was wonderful and left me hoping to return someday.
However. There was one thing that struck me about being in Paris that I had never felt before in the USA or in Israel. Something that I felt again, several years later, in the city you call home. Something that I felt as a Jew, especially when visiting the Jewish communities in those cities.
If you give it some thought, it kind of sounds ridiculous. I mean… I live in Israel, right? This trip was in March of 2001. 8 Israelis were killed and about 45 were injured in terror attacks in that month alone. My trip to Barcelona was in 2006, just three months after the Second Lebanon War, in which I personally dodged a few Katyushas in Haifa. Certainly, far more Jews have been killed on racist/nationalist grounds in Israel than in France or Spain over the past fifteen years. But in Israel we do not tuck our Stars of David under our shirts. In Israel we do not hide our synagogues behind heavy metal gates and stern security personnel. And obviously, in Israel, we do not avoid speaking or wearing Hebrew in public. Seeing Jews do these things, just as a matter of daily life, was appalling to me. It felt backwards, so different from the feeling of being Jewish in America (or even in London, which I visited in 2004), and from the kind of fear we deal with in Israel.
The news from Paris last week was horrifying but not surprising to me. (And frankly I find it upsetting that the world’s attention was focused solely on Paris while 2,000 people were massacred by Boko Haram in Africa. But I digress.) There has been a serious uptick in antisemitic incidents in Europe in general and France in particular lately; boosted by the war in Gaza, but it was on an upward trend beforehand, too. I don’t need to read the papers to know this; all I have to do is open my ears. I’ve been hearing more and more French on the streets. This year was the first time in Israel’s history that France topped the countries of origin for olim, new immigrants to Israel. 7,000 French Jews moved here in 2014–and that includes the exhausting war we had this summer. If you ask any of these olim, they will tell you that they’ll take the rockets over the constant, looming threat of antisemitism any day. At least, they say, here, we are in charge of our own destiny.
France is the world’s third largest Jewish community, after the USA and Israel. But a few years down the line, that may no longer be true. The Jews are fleeing France. And when Jews start emigrating en masse, it is not a good sign for the place from which they’re fleeing. Persecution often starts with Jews, but it never ends with them… and we already saw that in Paris last week.
And while I do find all this upsetting and infuriating, I can’t say I’m unhappy about the wave of immigration from France. There is a sizeable (and growing) community of French expats in my town, one of whom started a lovely café here. 😀 The other day Eitan and I were walking down Emeq Refa’im Street in Jerusalem and we noticed that a restaurant that had been there for many years was closing down, and there were signs up that it was going to be replaced by a French patisserie. I gave a sarcastic grin and said, “Thank God for French antisemitism.”
I hope that many Jews from France will make aliyah, but I really wish it were more about coming to Israel than about fleeing France. :-/