Tag Archives: sin

Taking Back the Word “Morality” From the Right Wing

3 Tamuz 5774

Tell you what, friends and neighbors. I’m really troubled tonight. I’m going to come back to Epstein tomorrow, but tonight I need to vent.

I am tired of “family values” being a synonym for “keep women in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant, and keep gays in the closet until they’re so far back in it that they can see Narnia.” I am tired of “moral” being a synonym for “repressed,” or “anti-sex,” or “anti-woman,” or “anti-gay,” or “Christian.” I am sick to death of morality being used as a bludgeon and one very small group of die-hard the-rules-are-everything people swinging it like a club at anyone who isn’t exactly like them. I have had it with “decency” being used to shame people for self-expression.

I’m not going to continue to support selfishness, or self-centeredness, or every-man-for-himselfishness. I’m not going to be silent when the idea of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is considered the right way to live, even if you have no boots. I’m not going to let people say that the poor are just lazy, or that women should know their place, or that gays and lesbians are mentally ill or making a choice. I am not going to stand by while my brothers’ and sisters’ blood is shed.

Yesterday morning, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations have the right to the freedom of religion, and that this means that corporations can deny women certain kinds of health care if it conflicts with the corporation’s “deeply held religious beliefs.” This follows on from a previous decision, Citizens United, which held that corporations are people and so, as people, corporations have the constitutional right to free speech – which is considered specifically as money and political contributions. What’s next? Corporations having the right to bear arms? Corporations having the right to vote? Those are constitutional rights guaranteed to people, too, right?

Last I checked, people were born and had hearts, and blood, and bones, and brains. They live, they breathe, they die. They marry. They have children. They divorce. Last I checked, corporations can’t do any of those things.

The fact is, today’s decision – and the ones leading up to it – are a horrific marriage of corporatism and religious self-righteousness. The Christian right and the corporations got in bed together way back when I was in high school, in the 1980s. Today, that marriage has borne fruit that I cannot even think about too much without beginning to shake in anger. Corporations have used far-right religionists’ anger about difference and dissent, and their determination to make their religious laws the law of the land, to forward their agenda of corporations eventually ruling the country.

This decision harms people of faith as well as women – although in its instant effect it certainly harms women far more. This decision opens doors to make it possible to rescind rights for women, people of color, GLBTs, and anyone who is part of a religion that doesn’t conform to the Christian far-right agenda for my country.

It also makes religious people look like sex-centered jackasses. It reduces religion to moral policing, rather than what religion was originally supposed to be – the drawing-together of community. Religion was never supposed to be the world’s moral policeman, but more and more, people are seeing it – and using it – as only that.

The mentality of the Christian right is one of the main reasons I find Judaism so appealing and so right for me. You see, Judaism does not teach that only Jews have a corner on the world to come. Christianity and Islam both teach that their way is the One True Way – the only way – to get right with G-d. Of course, One-True-Wayists annoy me anyway, but when religion affects public life, it’s a special kind of NO for me.

I’m also sick and tired of the Christian right saying that I’m immoral for being gay, or that my female friend is immoral for enjoying sex and not wanting to have to worry about getting pregnant, while at the same time refusing to say anything about the immorality of how the homeless, the poor, and the disadvantaged are treated in this nation and around the world.

So here’s my response to the Christian right’s straw-man morality.

Yes, our current world is immoral.

It is not immoral because there were Pride parades all this past week and weekend. It is immoral because people who are gay get attacked by Bible-thumping bullies and the bullies get away with it.

It is not immoral because women can protect themselves from having a baby that they may not be able to afford to raise, or that they may not be able to cope with (not all women are cut out to be mothers). It is immoral because a dedicated phalanx of whited sepulchers can bend the law to deny women the ability to avoid pregnancy. Pro-life positions that do not allow for contraception are not pro-life. They are simply pro-birth. Unless you care about what happens to that child after it’s born, you have a lot of nerve telling a woman to have a baby in the first place. Your position on this is immoral.

Our world is not immoral because poor people are lazy. It is immoral because poor people are demonized and we refuse to help them. It is immoral because we demand that the poor somehow produce miracles when we won’t even give them a helping hand. It is immoral because our elected officials cut food stamps, unemployment, and anything else that might help the poor get back on their feet.

Our world is not immoral because we have homeless people. It’s immoral because we do everything we can to make it impossible for them to live. It is immoral because instead of helping them get off the street and into housing, we put spikes on covered areas near buildings to ensure they have nowhere to sleep.

Our world is not immoral because capitalism exists. It’s immoral because the 1% have done everything possible to stack the capitalist deck in their favor. It’s immoral because we lionize the filthy-rich instead of shaming them for their selfishness and self-centeredness. It’s immoral because the Real Housewives of Orange County are looked at as role models.

Our world is immoral because it prioritizes financial success over personal connection. It is immoral because it prioritizes winning and competition over compassion. It is immoral because it prioritizes and rewards selfishness instead of kindness.

Last I checked, a Jew was required to show their morality through charity and kindness. I doubt there’s a Jew out there who supports this decision.

So don’t talk to me about morality, Hobby Lobby. Don’t even try to tell me that denying a woman the ability to be close to her partner with sex without the constant worry about pregnancy is moral. Don’t even try to tell me that letting the poor suffer instead of helping them is moral. Don’t even try to tell me that making it impossible for the homeless to live is moral. Don’t tell me that putting profits ahead of people is moral.

That’s not morality. That’s sin. And it has to stop.




Filed under Jewish Practices, Judaism

Do Not Stand Idly By: Being A Jew Who Picks and Chooses

18 Sivan 5774

I recently found a wonderful article by Rabbi Maurice Harris on MyJewishLearning.com. I’ve been struggling with the idea that you have to keep and observe every single one of the mitzvot or you are not a good Jew. But Rabbi Harris gives a really, REALLY good reason for rejecting some of the Leviticus laws that require us to be sexist, racist, or homophobic. He says:

“I acknowledge my disappointment and anger at the suffering these texts have wrought, and I believe that our ancestors were mistaken on this issue. Similarly, I respond to other passages in the Torah that advocate things that modern liberal Jews openly condemn (such as the passages in Numbers 31 in which God and Moses commanded the genocide of all Midianite men, women, and children).

“Yes, this makes me a religious Jew who “picks and chooses.” I believe that we have a moral responsibility to thoughtfully pick and choose, because as human beings we are all morally responsible for any harms we commit in the name of our religions. To quote a teacher of mine, “There is no ‘I was just following orders’ defense that excuses harms people inflict in the name of their religious beliefs.”

Now, Judaism has certainly carved out some exceptions to reduce harm that might be caused by religious beliefs. Pikuach nefesh deals with some of the mitzvot that are harmful for Jews in certain health situations, as well as prioritizing life over almost any of the mitzvot. I believe there is also a ruling somewhere that says that financial hardship is a reason not to perform certain mitzvot. And there’s definitely a rabbinic doctrine of human dignity before rules whenever possible.

But that is still a powerful, powerful – and true! – statement for Rabbi Harris to make. “I was just following orders” is not an excuse for following rules that harm real people, even if the orders supposedly came from G-d.

I don’t believe that it is a mitzvah to condemn someone for their gender, their gender identity, their sexual orientation or their race. I don’t believe that HaShem actually wants that. I believe that while many of our traditions are good and should be preserved, some of them are harmful and should be set aside. Keshet, the organization that is working for full equality for LGBT Jews, has a signature drive called Do Not Stand Idly By, a pledge to speak out against homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, and harassment in the Jewish community. (By the way, I urge you to sign it.)

I’m now going to switch to a discussion of Rabbi Kushner’s book How Good Do We Have To Be? that I referenced in another post, because Kushner also has some important things to say about this whole rule-bound thing.

I quote:

“To say that we are destined to lose G-d’s love or to go to Hell because of our sins is not a statement about us but about G-d, about the tentative nature of G-d’s love and the conditional nature of G-d’s forgiveness. It is a claim that G-d expects perfection from us and will settle for nothing less […] I strenuously reject [this idea]. If I am capable of forgiveness, of recognizing intermittent weakness in good people or good intentions gone astray in myself and others, how can G-d not be capable of at least as much?”

Too many times, people who cling to every rule teach us that everything about us is sinful, that we are sinners, that we are fundamentally wrong because we are not obeying each and every rule and performing every mitzvah perfectly. Kushner and Harris are both arguing against this “marriage to the rules” instead of “paying attention to the people” mindset; Harris by saying that there’s no “I was just following orders” defense for harming people through obeying rules, and Kushner pointing out that G-d does not demand that we be perfect in order to be loved.

Rabbi Shmuely Boteach, in his Orthodox-flavored tome Judaism for Everyone, points out that doing the right thing for the wrong reasons is better than doing the wrong thing for the right reasons:

“[J]udaism insists that one must do a good deed even if it stems from improper or insincere motivation. Refraining from doing a good deed because we question our intention is the piety of fools.”

Kushner also points out this important fact: Religion, at its best, does not exist to carp at us and make us feel inadequate, or guilty, or wrong. It exists (or should) to tell us that even in our imperfection we are welcome. Even in our flawed humanness, we are acceptable.

We have a choice between being self-righteous and taking comfort in being the ones who do everything perfectly and perform all the mitzvot and never transgress a commandment (as impossible as that probably is), or in being the ones who trip, make mistakes, do dumb things, fall down, and get up again and make amends. Certainly the idea is not to say “Well, I can’t even try to perform X mitzvah” – but it is important to recognize, I think, whether some mitzvot are also gemilut chasadim (acts of loving-kindness), or if they are simply relics of a time when the rules were more important than the people.

And then the question becomes: given the choice between following mitzvot that harm others (which, for me, is the same as standing idly by while our brothers’ blood is shed) or treating people with kindness, tolerance, and acceptance – well, which do you think is more important to HaShem in the long run? Which choice truly seeks to serve justice, show mercy, and walk humbly with our G-d?

I know my answer. Do you?

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Filed under Judaism

Wrestling Match #9: Why Is This Religion Different From All Other Religions?

Yesterday’s Torah study session, and some things that happened today, really opened my eyes to some fundamental differences between Judaism and the other religions I was raised in and tried – Catholicism, fundamentalist Protestantism, Unitarian Universalism, and paganism. (Atheism is not a religion.) Mainly I’m going to focus on the Christian religions because those are the ones that really caused me problems; UUism and paganism, on the other hand, simply didn’t fulfill my needs.

Let’s start with the differences in the view of G-d – and, by extension, the view of sin. In all the G-d centered religions that I’ve been part of (Catholicism and Protestantism), G-d is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient. This means that he knows everything you do, think, and say. And if he doesn’t like it, he can zot you with a Great Big Divine Lightning Bolt (or the figurative equivalent). You have no privacy in these religions. Your thoughts can be sins – and are often considered such. Catholicism has a whole category of sins called “impure thoughts.” Basically, you have to be perfect in thought, word, and deed. And do you have any right to any boundary between you and G-d? Heck, no.

In Judaism, G-d isn’t concerned with what we think. He’s concerned with what we do and say. He’s not going to zot us for thinking bad things, unless we put them into action. As the rabbi said last night, the whole point of Moses going back and forth between G-d and the Hebrews at Sinai was that G-d was saying “Yes, I could read your minds, but I’m not that big of a jerk. You get your privacy inside your head.” This may take me a while to wrap my mind around, but it’s just another wrestling match, right?

And then there’s the whole sin thing. In Judaism, sin is what you do (when you shouldn’t do it) or don’t do (when you should do it). It’s also about what you do to others as much, if not more, than what you do to G-d. And if you hurt others through your sin, you have to go to those others and ask for forgiveness. Which brings us to…

Forgiveness. It isn’t just a single act in Judaism. In Catholicism, you recite your list of sins to the priest, who gives you a few prayers to say as penance, and you’re done. That’s what forgiveness looks like – almost like a transaction. In Protestantism you just go right to G-d and you’re done. Poof, presto, no more sin.

But Judaism demands more of us when it comes to apologizing. First, the apologies have to be made to the person harmed – not to a third party or to G-d, unless G-d is the one we harmed by our actions – and we have a special day for that (Yom Kippur). Then, once we are forgiven (and it is a mitzvah to forgive when you get a sincere apology), we have to follow through on our apology by not doing that action again. This isn’t like Catholicism where, even if you do it again, you can just go to the priest and get a theological shower in the confessional to wash it away, or Protestantism, where you just say “I’m sorry, G-d,” and you’re back in the clear again.

In the movie Ladyhawke, Matthew Broderick (who plays Phillipe, a thief) promises not to cut purse any more. Later in the movie, you see him cutting someone’s pouch off his belt as the guy sits half-asleep on a dock, and Phillipe whispers, “I know I promised, L-rd, never again. But I also know that you know what a weak-willed person I am.”

It’s funny as a movie scene, but the truth is that many Christians do this. I think of this as the Christian Cop-Out. Judaism doesn’t allow for that. If Phillipe were a Jew, he would have to go to the guy he stole the pouch from, apologize, and make amends.

Forgiveness also demands more of us. In Judaism, you are supposed to forgive someone if they ask you sincerely for forgiveness by the third time asked. In fact, it’s a religious requirement. And again, it’s not a one-off thing. You can’t just say “OK, you’re forgiven.” You have to actively work on continuing to forgive that person every time the anger comes up.

This is hard for me as well. I’m not good at forgiving. I’m actually very good at holding grudges. But a situation has come up where I need to forgive someone for a harm they did me and then apologized for over a year ago, and I’m struggling with it because, well, I don’t wanna. Forgiving them feels like saying that what they did to me wasn’t that big of a deal (and to me, it was) and letting them hurt me again, because I also have to ask for forgiveness for distancing myself from them since the apology. It’s a big mess, to me.

But I’m not going to wait around for Yom Kippur to extend my apology. I’m going to treat this as an object lesson: am I ready to be a Jew? Am I ready to follow through on what I’ve been saying, or is this all an intellectual exercise?

So tonight I’m going to contact this person and say, “I want to apologize for avoiding you. I also want to know if you still think that I’m [what they said I was] last year, and if so, if there’s anything I can do to remedy that.”

And whatever happens after, I will apologize and forgive like the Jew-ish person that I am and the Jew I hope to one day be. Anything less would be immoral.

No, it’s not easy. But it’s what I have to do.


Filed under Conversion Process, Jewish Practices, Judaism, Wrestling Matches

Wrestling Match #8: Sin

26 Iyyar 5774

This is one of the things I have had the most trouble with: sin.

In Christianity, sin is mainly something you do against G-d. You disobey, or you break commandments, or whatever. But you also have original sin – sin that you get because you were descended from Adam, and he sinned, so that means until you’re baptized, YOU carry ADAM’s sin.

Apparently Judaism isn’t cool with that. And there’s exactly one time per year when sins against G-d are even talked about: Yom Kippur.

Most sins are the sins you commit against other people. These may also be broken commandments/mitzvot, but the main issue is: you hurt someone else either by what you did or by what you didn’t do. Another human being. Not cool. Cut it out, apologize to the person you harmed, make amends, and don’t do it again.

However, this seems to leave out things you do that don’t actually harm anyone, but that are supposedly “morally” wrong. For example: where does consent come into play? Does consent mitigate sin? If (for example) a married couple likes to play spanking games, does the spankee’s consent mitigate or eliminate the spanker’s sin? I can’t find clear answers for this kind of thing, even in Reform Judaism writings, although there are opinions available on the web.

There does seem to be a rabbinic argument in favor of polyamory (look up Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in NYC), and the main points are listed at AhavaRaba, or “Big Love” in Hebrew (roughly), which is an email list for poly Jews. I will be adding myself to that list at some point, I’m sure.

And we’ve already discussed the homosexuality question in the drash I posted a few weeks ago (see “The Verses That Won’t Let People Live“), so I don’t need to go into that, I don’t think.

Part of what I’m wrestling with here is just the idea that some of the things I do or like might be things that HaShem really doesn’t care about. As someone raised in several faith traditions where even my thoughts (never mind my actions) could be sinful, this is hard to wrap my head around. In Catholicism, you confess everything, even if it was only a thought. In Judaism, it seems, your confessions are mostly to the people who were harmed by your action or inaction, and a once-a-year apology to G-d for the mistakes you’ve made and the offenses you’ve made against him alone.

Any thoughts? This is one place I can’t seem to find a lot of guidance.


Filed under GLBT, Judaism, Wrestling Matches