My Moment Magazine Ask the Rabbi

About a year ago I was approached by Moment Magazine with the request to contribute my opinion, as a Sephardic rabbi, to an “Ask the Rabbi” column featuring rabbis of many denominations. I am sharing here three of these segments. 

Q: What guidance, if any, does Judaism offer transgender people, or people whose gender is nonconforming?

A: Traditional Judaism, which tends to confine itself to the four cubits of halakha, has currently either criticism or very little guidance to offer to nonconforming genders. The problem is that we are dealing with a situation with no precedents, since the Halakhic discourse in the Mishna, and all the literature which followed it and was based on it, is rooted in the binary perception of male/female. We are just starting to understand that there is a wide spectrum of gender identity and that society must not force people into narrow categories. This process will be a slow and arduous one at the social level and even more tortuous at the religious level, which by nature tends to be divisive and classifying.

Just as we strive to achieve equality between men and women as understood by the traditional divide of male/female, we should aspire to provide full equality to nonconforming genders without demanding of them to identify as either male or female for religious or social purposes.

This approach is based on two crucial concepts of Judaism: First, the statement in the Book of Genesis that all humans were created in the image of God. We believe that God has no physicality and no gender, and therefore all humans are equal. Furthermore, the Torah refers to the first human in both the plural and the singular (Gen. 1:27), indicating that we must accept the inherent plurality of the human being.

Second, the famous golden rule: Love the other as you love yourself! (Lev. 19:18). Just as we do not want to be rejected, alienated, judged, or labeled, we should not do it to others, and definitely not in the name of religion. Religious leaders should rise to the task and find ways to welcome transgender or nonconforming people, and perhaps the first step will be to let them decide how and if they want to define themselves.

Q: Is it the job of rabbis to fight intermarriage? 

A: I believe that the role of the rabbi should be defined in positive rather than negative terms. The question therefore is not whether a rabbi should fight assimilation but what can a rabbi do to strengthen Jewish identity. I have presented the following challenge to diverse audiences: convince a non-Jewish friend to become Jewish. The overwhelming response was: we suffer enough being Jewish, why would we drag a friend into this? This is where we have a problem. It is not about the danger of seeking to marry outside the religion, but rather about not finding an incentive to adhere to a certain religious identity other than the fact that you were born into it. Most Jews who are observant, practicing, or maintain a Jewish identity, do so because of indoctrination, peer pressure, or the exilic mentality of “everyone wants to get me, so I should be strong.” Rabbis, parents, and educators should ask and teach why is it amazing and beneficial to be Jewish. Once we find the answer, though, we should be willing to share it with people of other beliefs, not as a condition for joining the family, but as invitation to explore a beautiful way of life. 

Q: In our communities, how should we balance the demands of civility with the disapproval we may feel for someone’s politics?”

A: I believe that we should avoid labeling people because of their political affiliation, and therefore welcome everyone into our communal space. That being said, an individual has the right to not attend services if he or she feels offended by the opinions of another congregant. Special care has to be taken that those who represent the community, mainly the rabbi and the cantor, will be respected and accepted by all. There is also great risk in filtering out those who disagree with us, the risk of creating a monoculture devoid of diversity, where one is never exposed to the ideology and humanity of the other side. With all that, I think that there are situations where the congregants or the religious leadership should speak up and prevent some people from attending all or some services and activities. This would be in a case of a person who is currently engaged in an ongoing violation of the rights of others, and who shows no signs of regret or remorse. A husband who refuses to give his wife a Get, an unrepentant Bernie Madoff, or an elected official who harms others, should not be welcomed in our midst until justice is done (see Is.1:15-17.) 

Q: What is the most important prayer we’ll say this High Holidays season?

A: Before blowing the shofar, the Sephardic custom is to chant the poem Oked VeHaneekad, by Rabbi Yehudah Shemuel ibn Abbas. It is a powerful and penetrating criticism of the Binding of Isaac, one that gives no answers, and rather raises many questions. At the heart of the poem is a dialog between Isaac and Abraham, in which the son tells his father to wrap the remnants of his ashes and take them home to Sarah. “Tell her” he says, “this is Isaac’s fragrance”. Lest the reader think that Isaac glorifies the sacrifice, the author puts in his mouth these words “I feel for my mother! She will cry and mourn! How can I comfort her!” Isaac addresses his father and tells him that whereas his own ordeal will end with his death on the altar, Abraham will have to live with the consequences of his actions. He asks his father if he has considered his actions, if he feels that his love of God is greater than his love for his wife and son, and if he did right by not telling Sarah’s his true intentions. This call for balancing the religious zeal with compassion, and for understanding that human emotions are part of God’s world, is one of the most important messages of the High Holidays. 

Q: What does Jewish tradition say about becoming a single parent by choice?

A: Jewish tradition does not have much to say the issue since this was never a serious option for women. In the Talmud we find the belief that a woman would rather marry a man whom she does not like than live by herself. The Bible seems to suggest that polygamy is not recommended, and it views divorce as the last resort and as a betrayal tantamount to idolatry. Additionally, most of the orthodox world still sees the role of the woman as secondary to that of the man, and the ultimate goal of both, based in what is interpreted as the first commandment of the Torah, is to be fruitful and multiply. Strangely enough, the Talmud does not deem the woman obligated to have children, but rather a vehicle to enable the husband to fulfill his obligation. In light of all that, it is hard to see a significant paradigm shift in the acceptance of single parent by choice. I believe, however, that responsible orthodox leaders must understand that society has changed and that neither law nor man can force someone to get married or to have children. The choice to become a single mother or father should be respected and honored, and it should be supported by the golden rule: love others as you do yourself. 

Q: How would you counsel a sexual predator?

A: Despite serving as a rabbi for many years, counseling people on a range of issues, and reading extensively on psychology and sociology, I don’t think that I am qualified to counsel a sexual predator. I don’t think that I could counsel a victim either, and that my role in such cases will be to offer support and trust and direct the victim to a professional who can help, as well as to raise awareness in the community and take preventive measures. As to the predator, if I had to be the one talking to him, I would try to bring him to see the pain he inflicted upon his victims. In Maimonides’ terminology, repentance is impossible without recognition of the sin, and as long as the perpetrator cannot identify with the pain of the victims, or at lease acknowledge its existence, there is no way to make progress. Once that recognition is achieved, I will try to study with that person biblical narratives which have a connection to his act, and will try to see which one of them talks to him. I could use the stories of Shekhem and Dinah, Yehudah and Tamar, David and Bathsheba, Amnon and Tamar, which all involve sexual assaults, and the narrative of David as an ostracized and neglected child. Reading a story which revolves around a remote figure in ancient times, might help the perpetrator in lowering his defense mechanisms, and allow him to open up for a more honest conversation. 

Should Jews at the seder ask God to smite their enemies?

The question has two elements: should we ask God to more smite our enemies, and should we do it at the Seder. I believe that we should ask for it, but as a reminder that the world in imperfect, because the last time that God has smitten our enemies was in the biblical era. Since then, it was mostly up to us. The idea of such a prayer is to remember that we have enemies and that we must fight evil. Sure, we can ask God to restore the humanity of the wicked and make them repent instead of punishing them, but meanwhile, we must eradicate evil, and pretending to live in a world of peace and harmony does not help. The answer to the second question, however, is that it probably does not belong at the Seder. Pesah is a time to celebrate freedom and redemption. We remember the bondage in Egypt, yet we know that our taskmasters have long gone. The inclusion of the request to smite our enemies in the Seder liturgy was a direct result of the horrors of the Crusades, which concurred with Pesah, and it’s about time to put them aside and focus on the positive.  

 Can there be Jewish robots?

RUjoo2 woke up somewhat startled. He hated the morning routine. His (its?) colleagues opted for virtual handwash, or ultrasonic one, but he was old-school (C++) and that meant doing things by the book, no shortcuts. The book (Dir:a/halakha:ShulhanArukh:1//5:execute) said that hands are washed every morning with a revi’it (3.5-7.5 fl. oz.) of water, and that did not sit well with his robotic hands. So, every morning [wash hands/dry with hot air/apply WD-40]. Then the daily blessings. Praise for resuscitating the dead was fine, especially after a day without a chance to recharge his 6-pack lithium-ion batteries, but thanking His Maker for not creating him a woman… that was tough, as he would always recall the verse from II Asimov (5:13): “In the image of man He created it, neither male nor female He created it”. “Thank You for not making me a slave”, he would think bitterly (that is, with wave-patterns mimicking human bitterness), what am I if not a slave, bound in this metal case, serving harsh masters? And “thank you for not creating me a non-Jew?’ Was he Jewish? True, the RCA {Robotic Conference of America} oversaw his conversion, but the UJA {United Jewish Androids} rejected it, claiming that the programmer used an un-orthodox protocol. He decided to just skip the whole thing and go directly to shul. Today, however, was one of those days when nothing goes right. His regular (virtual) minyan was full so he had to join a new one. The Robyte (Rabbi/Robot) asked RUjoo2 if he is Jewish, but found it hard to believe, saying: “funny, but you don’t look Jewish!”

What sins should we atone for in our use of social media?

Social Media! Sins! Where do I even start? Probably with Jeremiah 9:7 “Their tongue is a sharp arrow”. Gossip, calumny, and libel are analogized in the bible to swords and poison, but the analogy to arrows best captures the dangerous power of our words, because once an arrow left the bow there is no way of retrieving it. Taking the weapon analogy to the 21st century the 

allows us to communicate with billions of users, which is wonderful, but words written in a haste, in anger, or for revenge can impact and alter the lives of countless people, and even if they affect only one person, the damage in most cases is irreversible. How do I reach out to all the people who read my original post to tell them that I made a mistake? How do I know that my message had not been shared and re-shared? Another serious offense, which many ignore, is exposing sensitive information about others. It is usually not deliberate, but one cannot escape responsibility. Then there is bullying, trolling, spamming, phishing, and let’s not forget the friend who sends you a million WhatsApp a second and then scolds you for not replying. Gluism, the state of being glued to your phone in company or alone, and the primal need to take selfies, document, and post every minute of your life. The only atonement for the sins of social media is awareness as a preventive measure. Let us think twice (or more) before unleashing unretractable arrows.  

What role should virtual (as opposed to physical) presence play in Jewish ritual and community?

Virtual prayer is not a new thing. It has been around for roughly 3,000 years. In I Kings, chapter 8, King Solomon opens the inauguration of the Temple by declaring that God dwells in the cloud, and then continues to ask God to pay heed to the prayers of his people, as well as those of other nations, who will have the Temple in mind while they pray. During 2,000 years in exile, Jews remained connected around the world by chanting similar prayers at set dates and times, and even when they were isolated and cut off from others, they found comfort in the knowledge that they are part of a larger, albeit unseen, community.

Today as virtual minyanim, learning groups, and spiritual sessions are proliferating, there are those who protest, saying that this is not how Judaism is practiced and that if people feel they need to pray they should come to the synagogue. Those who say that, I fear, fail to see the full spectrum of Jewish life. There are many who wish to come to synagogue but cannot because they are bed-ridden, have no means of transportation, are used to a particular style, live on an island or an isolated military base, or, sadly, cannot attend services because of personal tensions with congregants or even the rabbi. How wonderful would it be to afford everyone the opportunity to join a minyan anywhere, anytime! Orthodox shuls are lagging behind, but there should be no problem for them to install a webcam and broadcast live feed of their services (of course, when they do that, Moshiach will come…

How (if at all) has Pittsburgh changed Jewish life for your community? 

On Tuesday, October 30th, l was on a bus from Maryland with fellow congregants who dropped everything and embarked the bus to attend the funerals of David and Cecil Rosenthal and to show solidarity and offer comfort. The following Shabbat saw a packed shul with lectures, prayers, and classes dedicated to the memory of the innocent victims. The most powerful moment for me during this emotional week came as we were waiting for the hearses, chanting “because of my brothers and friends.” But with the outpouring of love and solidarity I contemplated some difficult thoughts: 1. The obsession with social media. Yes, there were those who wanted to share the experience with others, but I felt that there were also those who marked that off as another event. We have to be able to put our phones aside and focus on reality. 2. Some people, including rabbis, were there to promote their agenda or make a name for themselves, which in my eyes is a grave transgression. 3. Finally, I was wondering: where was the solidarity when Israel endured incessant terrorist attacks? I heard from too many people the phrase “it could have been me” and I think that we should be able to spring to action even when we think that this could never happen to me. Because we do not want “it” to happen to anyone.

Should we edit our children’s genes? 

As an avid Sci-Fi reader in my youth, I have encountered dozens of potential scenarios stemming from that question. Now, yesterday’s fiction is quickly turning into today’s science and tomorrow’s reality, but even though we are moving in bounds and leaps, we should never ignore history, which raises many red flags for us, from the practice of ancient Greeks to abandon imperfect babies, through Nazism, to the monocultural crops, such as bananas, which has become an endangered species. In the case of editing human genes, the question can easily turn from “editing our children’s genes,” a choice made voluntarily by parents, to “editing all children’s genes” under state mandated regulations. Secondly, can we accurately predict the consequences of genetic engineering on the complex organism which is the human being? In addition, are we entitled to choose for our child gender, height, complexion, and intelligence? And finally, even if we can determine with precision all details about the fetus, and even if all children so manipulated will be perfectly healthy, we are running the risk of monoculturalism, both physically and culturally. I take my cue for answering this question from the story of the Tower of Babel. The builders of the tower wanted to create an Orwellian, homogenous society, and God interfered by introducing the diversity of languages.

In conclusion, I believe that genetic engineering or editing should be focused on eliminating diseases, and that it should not wander into the dangerous realm of creating an ubermensch.

Does Jewish law forbid racism?

o ask if Jewish law forbids racism is to ask if you ever read the first chapter of Genesis. In that chapter the Torah presents the most revolutionary idea of ancient times, which, judging by the still prevalent xenophobia, racism, and bigotry, is still one many cannot easily digest. That idea is contained in two Hebrew words: צלם אלקים- the Image of God, and it is very carefully inserted into the larger context of the creation story: “Elohim created man in His image, male and female He created them” (1:27). The Torah emphasizes that the Image of God is a concept which is embedded in men and women equally. The idea is reiterated and reinforced in Genesis 5:2: “Male and Female He created them, and He blessed them, and He named them Adam on the day of their creation”. The woman is Adam just as the man is Adam, and Adam is the name given to those created in the image of God. But the message of these verses is much greater than that of equality between men and women. It is about the equality of all humankind. That is because men and women are in essence two separate species, and the binary difference between them is the first instinctive reaction upon seeing a human being (the inability to clearly define a non-binary person is probably the reason why there is so much bigotry towards them.)

By equating men and women the Torah states that the image of God is not expressed physically, and racism is therefore a rejection of the very foundation of the Torah, which would clearly be forbidden by Jewish Law (this is not to say, however, that there are no racist Jews.)

Are there things that cannot be forgiven?

There are! But they are not the same for everyone. However, if we search for an objective answer, we should first assume that regret was expressed. If not, I would perceive it more as letting go of a grudge and forgiving oneself. If regret was expressed, we should ask the following questions: 1. Was the apology sincere? If the answer is no, then again forgiveness is grated to oneself; 2. Would other people of my culture and upbringing consider the act an offense? If the answer is positive, but there is a chance that the person committing the offense sees it differently, maybe there’s room for forgiveness; 3. Would most people agree that the act was an offense? If the answer is yes, and if you feel it is unforgiveable, then it should not be forgiven. There is still an area of subjectivity, of course, but I feel that most people would agree that crimes such as murder, rape, sexual assault, and criminal negligence which caused irreparable damage to body or soul fall under this category. True, there are programs which bring together victims’ relatives and murderers, and which reportedly provide some closure for the relatives and generate remorse for the perpetrator, but the relatives can only forgive for what they have endured, and not for the victim has suffered. Also, with some of the examples mentioned before I think the definition of forgiveness is “we are not going to punish you”, but not “it is if that has never happened.” Finally, some crimes should not be forgiven by individuals and the society to deter potential criminals. 

Should “Dirty Money” be returned?

Dirty money is money obtained illegally or unmorally, and therefore it cannot be laundered by giving portions of it to charitable causes, as noble as they may be. By accepting such a donation we assist the criminal and, in a way, become accomplices. I would like to believe that most people will accept this simple logic, but I also assume that there will be those who would argue that though we should reject a donation offered by a known or convicted criminal, there is no need to return a donation which was made before that information was exposed. That approach argues that since the receiver was unaware of the non-kosher origin of the donation he is not an accomplice. I would ask the proponents of this approach what would they do if they were the victims. Wouldn’t they want the money to be returned to them? Another argument raised in favor of not returning the money is that a distinction should be made based on the donation’s destination. A museum or playhouse should perhaps return the money, but a hospital or soup kitchen should not because they are saving life. I would argue that in all cases the money should not be used as the giver has intended. Rather, it should be used, as much as possible, to amend the damage caused by the criminal, even if indirectly. For example, money obtained from narcotics should be used to help rehabilitation clinics.  

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