Wednesday, January 09, 2013

New Series of Shiurim

Beginning next week I will be giving a new series of shiurim on WebYeshiva entitled "Who Wrote the Commentaries on the Talmud." The shiurim are broadcast live at 10:00pm (Israel time) on Wednesdays, and all shiurim are recorded and available for download by the day after the shiur. Previous series of shiurim that I have given on WebYeshiva are available via this link. Participants must register to join these classes, but all classes are free. So go ahead and sign up!

Here are the topics and personalities I will attempt to cover over the next 7 weeks. Anyone who has any interesting sources, or insights is welcome to contact me and share them. For me, these shiurim are learning as much as teaching, and I very much look forward to learning and teaching these classes.

Jan 16: History of Talmud
• We will look at the history of the Talmud, who were its authors, when was it first written down (and why) and the history of the various printings of the Talmud, and the geography of a page of Talmud.

Jan 23: What’s on the Page?
• We will look at the small commentaries and notes on the page of the Talmud - what they do, who wrote them, and why they are there. These include Torah Or, Ein Mishpat Ner Mitzvah and Masoret ha-Shas, Gilyon HaShas of Rabbi Akiva Eiger, and Hagahot HaBach

Jan 30: Rabbeinu Gershom
• Rabbeinu Gershom is the founder of Ashkenazi Torah scholarship. Better known for his "decrees" than his Talmudic commentary, he was hugely influential on everyone who came after him. We will look at his life, his works, and his long-lasting influence on Ashkanazi (and world) Jewry.

Feb 6: Tosefot/Rabbeinu Tam/R”I
• The school of Tosefot, founded by Rashi's grandsons and great-grandsons, has shaped all future Talmud study. We will look at the personalities who shaped Tosefot, primarily Rabbeinu Tam and R"I (Rabbeinu Yitzchak). And we will try to examine the task that Tosefot set themselves in their Talmudic commentary.

Feb 13: Rabbeinu Asher ben Yechiel (Rosh)
• Rabbeinu Asher ben Yechiel (the Rosh) was the bridge between Ashkenazi and Sefardi halachic practice and custom. His halachic commentary on the Talmud is one of the three 'pillars' on which all later halacha is built. His life story is also the story of antisemtism and persecution. We will also look at the famous forgery “Besamim Rosh”, falsely attributed to the Rosh.

Feb 20: Mordechai ben Hillel
• The commentary of Rabbi Mordechai ben Hillel (known simply as 'Mordechai') is printed at the back of the Talmud. He was one of the most influential Ashkenazi halachicists, whose influence reached as far as Italy. He died a martyrs death at the age of 48 in the Rintfleisch Massacres. We will also look at the Mordechai’s teacher, Rabbi Meir (Maharam) of Rotenberg, who was kidnapped and eventually died in prison refusing to allow the Jewish community to ransom him.

Feb 27: Rabbi Shmuel Eidels (Maharsha)
• The commentary of Rabbi Shmuel Eidels (Maharsha) is printed at the back of the Talmud. (Virtually) uniquely he writes on both the halachic and the aggadic (non-halachic) portions of the Talmud. His life story casts light on 16th century Polish Jewry. We will look at both his life and his commentary.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Rav Lichtenstein's View on Homosexuality

I am very glad to read Rav Lichtenstein's answer to the question of homosexuality. I wish I knew nearly as much as him, and I wish I could write as well as him.

Here is his article:
Session 3: Perspective on Homosexuals

I think what he is saying is not so different than what I wrote almost exactly 10 years ago (It was published on 17th January 2003 - I can't the direct link to the page, but I think this should work)

By the way, after my article was published, the head of JONAH, Arthur Goldberg, phoned me, and argued very strongly against me. I maintained then, and still maintain now, that there are some people who have no choice and can never be 'cured' by any kind of therapy (I don't believe that every gay person is necessarily in that category, but I suspect it it is the majority). I feel quite vindicated that the state of California agrees with me, and has banned 'conversion therapy' and New Jersey may follow them.

Of course, even if such therapy would work (which there is no evidence for) there is a HUGE question of whethe it is permitted halachically. Is one permitted to transgress all sorts of serious Torah violations in order to try and prevent a different sin? Even for pikuach nefesh the three big sins are forbidden, why should they be permitted in this case?

Here is my article from 10 years ago, in case the link doesn't work. I wrote there: "However, I know of no Jewish source which forbids two men, or two women, enjoying a loving and committed relationship with each other." The truth is that this can be understood (or misunderstood) in a few ways, and perhaps I do now know of Jewish sources which forbid such a relationship between people who are gay (though ironically, if they were not gay it would probably be permitted according to everyone). Nevertheless, even if I partially retract that line, I still stand by everything else I wrote. And it now seems that Rav Lichtenstein may hold a not too dissimilar position.

Amid a growing national debate on whether gay couples should enjoy more rights, Orthodox Rabbi David Sedley calls on Jewish communities to be more open-minded towards homosexuals.

Barbara Roche, the Minister for Social Exclusion, recently argued that there was a strong case for introducing a scheme for same-sex couples formally to register their relationships. This would would allow them, for example, to claim the same benefits as married couples, giving them inheritance rights and next-of-kin status.

At the Limmud conference last month, a United Synagogue rabbi, Zvi Solomons of Potters Bar Synagogue, suggested that we need to review the way we treat homosexuals within our communities.

As an Orthodox rabbi, who has served in Edinburgh and now Leeds, I have been involved in counselling homosexuals — and their families — who feel that they have been driven from the synagogue. There are many who keenly feel the loss of not going to shul, yet are afraid to become a part of the Jewish community for fear of being ostracised. There is also a great deal of anti-religious sentiment among some gay communities and a fear of, or antipathy towards, any form of organised religion.

It has been claimed that up to 10 per cent of Britons define themselves as homosexual. Assuming that the Jewish community is representative of the general population, then we may have almost 30,000 members who are gay. How does Orthodox Judaism relate to the gay community, and what should our attitude be?

The Torah verses on homosexuality are specific and explicit. Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 state that a man must not have sex with another man. The act of intercourse between two men is thus prohibited by the Torah. The Talmud also understands from Leviticus 18:3 that lesbian couplings are forbidden.

However, I know of no Jewish source which forbids two men, or two women, enjoying a loving and committed relationship with each other. It is true that a gay couple would probably not be able to fulfil the mitzvah to “be fruitful and multiply,” nor would we necessarily term such a relationship a “bayit ne’eman b’Yisrael” (“a faithful Jewish home,” the traditional blessing for couples.) Nevertheless, we as a community must recognise the fact that, for some people, a heterosexual marriage is not an option. It would be as bad for our communities to pressure someone who is homosexual into a heterosexual relationship as it would be to force a heterosexual into a homosexual relationship.

A sexual relationship between two men is termed a “to’evah,” usually translated as an “abomination.” However, the word “to’evah” is used not only to describe homosexual sex, but also for all forbidden sexual relationships and such for Torah prohibitions as idolatry, eating non-kosher food, sacrificing blemished animals, cross-dressing, using unequal measures or taking interest on loans. All of these are expressly forbidden, yet as a community we do not show the same bias against those who eat non-kosher as we do against those who are openly gay.

The Torah punishment for homosexual intercourse is the same as that for breaking Shabbat. Why do we accept those who publicly desecrate Shabbat and happily call them to the Torah, yet not accept those who are gay but who nevertheless live a fulfilled Jewish life? It seems to me that the reason that homosexuals feel ostracised from Jewish communities is not because of Judaism and halachah, but because of the homophobia of some rabbis and their congregations, hiding behind frumkeit.

Let me be clear. The Torah and halachah explicitly forbid homosexual intercourse. But Judaism is about a personal relationship with both God and other people. Each of us has a contract with God, and strives to fulfil it as best we can. It is not for society to judge others, but for the Almighty. Only He can ascertain the strength of each person’s relationship with Him. We can be held accountable only for actions where we have free will. For actions which are beyond our free choice, halachah invokes the principle of “ones rachmanah patrei” (the Almighty forgives acts which are beyond our control.)

If a homosexual couple are able to share their lives together but refrain from intercourse (which, I accept, is a very difficult challenge, and one which may even be beyond their limits of free will) then they have not broken any halachah. And it is not for us to start asking people what goes on in their bedrooms.

We don’t check that a woman has been to the mikveh before giving her husband an aliyah, nor do we ensure that their private lives are lived within the confines of halachah. Why can we not give the same benefit of the doubt to homosexual couples and encourage them to become fully participating members of our communities?

Why do we open our shul doors to those who eat treif, don’t keep Shabbat, are dishonest in business, mistreat their wives… yet slam the door closed in the face of a religious person who happens to be gay? The Jewish community must welcome gay people and not deny them a fulfilled Jewish life.

It is true that the idea of a homosexual marriage lies well beyond the bounds of halachic acceptability, just like intermarriage and other forbidden relationships. Similarly, we can never teach that homosexuality is a valid alternative to the Torah ideal of a heterosexual nuclear family. If someone is undecided about sexual orientation, we must present heterosexuality as the preferred norm. Yet we must, above all else, be tolerant. It was hatred that destroyed the Second Temple, and intolerance of others is the reason that we are still in exile.

We can acknowledge homosexuality and same-sex relationships without accepting these as Jewish values.

Surely we would do better to encourage stability and long-term commitment than to force people to live a lie, or push them into short-term gratification of their sexual needs.

So I call on everyone to be more open-minded. Some people have become defined solely by their sexual orientation, so that they lose sight of their life beyond the bedroom.

The gay community should not be insular or full of mistrust, rejecting the friendship of outsiders. Nor should they be militant and use synagogues to demonstrate “gay pride.” Similarly the Jewish community must not ignore the mitzvot which people do, or their contribution to society, just because they happen also to be gay.

We must reach out to every Jew in our community and train ourselves to see only that which is positive and good in one another. Let us recognise that homophobia is as destructive as any hatred based on religious or ethnic differences.

Judaism wants us all to strengthen our own personal commitment to God and His commandments. Let us strive together for openness, tolerance and inclusiveness, and in this way may we strengthen our Jewish communities and bring peace and understanding.