Monday, June 29, 2015

False Fear from the Anti-Homosexuals Among Us

Immediately in the wake of the mainstream rejoicing regarding the Supreme Court's ruling in support of homosexual unions, came multiple articles from the Catholic Church, certain protestants, and some of the Orthodox Jews in our American Jewish Community.

The united fear expressed by these articles  is that those who are religiously opposed to homosexuality may be forced to support and serve active homosexuality.  The questions raised have included,

(1) Must someone working in town hall provide a marriage license if it is against their religion to do so?
(2) Must a catering hall or florist accept a contract for a homosexual couple's wedding celebration? (3) Does a therapist put themselves at risk of a civil right's law suit by counseling that homosexuality is both deviant and curable?

There are two simple principles here, and two compelling analogies.

When working in a public office, one represents and administers the laws and directives of the Constitution of the United States as interpreted by the Supreme Court. There is no freedom of conscience for a town clerk to withhold any service of the government based on their own personal convictions. That is illegal and morally wrong. Such a person should be removed from that office if they will not comply. This, however, also extends to services generally offered to the public, such as educational, retail or financial services, etc. General public services may not be withheld under the phrase, "we don't serve your kind here."

When operating as a private religious institution, the protection of religious rights and freedoms are paramount, and bias is not only legal - but essential in some form. Similarly, the right to assemble can be for any peaceful purpose. And finally, the right to free speech allows for the proclamation and distribution of those ideas.  The whole point of religious freedom is to protect the right to believe anything, and to form social groups whose purpose is to peacefully explore, celebrate and act upon those beliefs.  Catholics do not have to give communion to protestants. Jews do not have to count non-Jews in minyan prayer quorums. The Ku Klux Klan does not need at accept people with dark skin into their society. The Supreme Court has specifically asserted that these rights are still protected for those who believe as a matter of faith that homosexuality is a moral sin.

Imagine a town clerk refusing to issue a marriage license to a Jewish woman who had converted to Judaism with a Reform rabbi. Only in Israel would someone think that might be tolerable, though they too are wrong.  But in America it would not be allowed ever. Imagine a kosher restaurant refusing to serve an intermarried couple. Imagine a Jewish University refusing admission to someone who eats treife.  Intolerable, of course. Government and public services have been made available by the pious to the sinners in the country for years. And even if I don't believe these to be sins, I respect that others do. But they have no right to withhold generally available public services on the basis of that bias.

Yet a church, a pastor, a synagogue, or a rabbi are NOT forced, in any way, to support or engage any activity which is contrary to their religion, when acting as a church, pastor, synagogue or rabbi.  I do not have to rent my synagogue for forbidden activities, nor do I have to rent my synagogue for permitted activities.  There is nothing wrong with Christians observing Christianity.  But my synagogue may choose NOT to rent the social hall for an Easter service for a church that needs an overflow location.  Then again, we might. But we have the right, because it is a religious issue, to decide to apply a bias, even if our social hall is generally available to the public to rent.

 In Conclusion: Homosexuality has been determined by the court to be a civil right, and society will be held accountable to the equal treatment of homosexual citizens under the law.  As with gender and race, no person may say that their religion is a basis for bias in the public sphere.  Nevertheless, individual rights to privacy, religion, speech, assembly, etc., all protect those who disagree with the ruling to hold and act upon those beliefs in the private and religious spheres. Denying services on the basis of sexual orientation is no different than segregating the lunch counter, or denying university admission to women.

The next time someone asks one of these questions about "homosexuals," you might want to substitute the word "black,"  "Christian," or "woman," and see how it sounds to you.  When properly framed, the questions answer themselves.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Racism and Gay Rights in America Today (Updated 6/29/15)

With the murder of a South Carolina pastor, and eight of his students engaged in peaceful bible study, racism has once again grabbed the spotlight in America this month. Ironically, these week proved that the civil rights battle of the 60's is now a broad and permanent victory.  The nation responded with horror and empathy, and the AME church in Charleston which suffered the slaughter was heralded as an historic landmark for the development of American cultural life. Historically black churches led the way, with all of America in the supportive wake of their example: Racism is intolerable on the American stage.

This does not mean that racism is absent, but bias against skin, language, gender, sexuality or religion has become fully foreign to the mainstream of this society, and all political leaders from left to right and in between immediately spoke out against the crime.  The federal prosecutors have added bias to the docket, and none are arguing that 'bias' is not an aggravating element of violent crime anymore. Despite the bloody and murderous example, this despicable event has come to prove the fact that America has truly become a nation of not only high ideals, but follow through.

It is the same sweep of history that saw the Supreme Court rule this week in multiple related cases that gay marriage is a civil right afforded by the principles of the U.S. Constitution across the country.  It is unconstitutional for any state or local government to refuse to provide a marriage license, or to refuse to recognize a license from any other place, for a gay couple. Absolutely equality and equal protection under law. Compare that to the December 17, 1963 N.Y. Times article, "Growth of Overt Homosexuality in City Provokes Wide Concern," which chronicles the shutting down of certain social establishments for attracting and serving "homosexuals and deviants," and an assertion that modern psychiatry had proven that homosexuality was deviant, avoidable and curable.  Just 50 years ago, the mainstream of our society treated homosexuality with disdain, pity, and persecution.  At the same time large segments of our society had segregated restaurants, bathrooms, buses and schools.

The advance of civil rights as a peaceful movement of democracy is quite simply stunning.

This week's rulings are fully in keeping with our understanding of Judaism today. The knowledge that homosexuality is a natural phenomenon indicates that it is created by God, and therefore good. The bible also knows no race, per se, and judgement on that basis decries the image of God in all humanity. Judaism did not always universally understand these truths, but they have become self-evident. In these past 20 years we have come to accept that it is not "liberalism" that is changing the landscape, but "truth" and "justice."

Tzedek tzedek tirdof.  The prophet adjures us to seek justice incessantly. This week, we are reminded that the turning of time does bring with it changes and improvements and that both the Torah and our civil law in America are flexible to accommodate new revelations of truths.

And He saw it, and it was good.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The World Zionist Elections, Results and Analysis

As I was preparing my own understanding of the recent WZO elections, which we worked hard to support and participate in, my colleague Rabbi Dr. David Fine was already busy penning the following, excellent analysis.  Rather than do the same job less well, I am sharing his comments verbatim:

"The Zionist Congress Elections as an Index on American Jewry"

by Rabbi Dr. David J. Fine

The results of the elections for the American delegation to the 37th World Zionist Congress are worth reflecting on.  While the election plays a key role in influencing the policies of the World Zionist Movement and in mapping the Israel-Diaspora relationship, the data are also important as an insightful index into the nature of the American Jewish community.  The big headline is the success of ARZA, representing the Reform movement, coming out on top with 56 of the 145 seats allocated to the American delegation to the 500-seat congress.  What strikes me is that the 39% won by the Reform movement here matches with almost scientific precision the Reform movement’s share of religiously-identified American Jews in the 2013 Pew report.  The Pew report found that 40% of religiously-identified American Jews (as opposed to Jews-by-ethnicity only) identify as Reform.

The Pew report made an interesting methodological distinction between “Jews by religion” and “Jews of no religion.”  While many are concerned about growing rates of secularization, secularization is a process that has been going on for two hundred years, and the Pew report found that 4.2 of the 5.3 million Jews in America are indeed “Jews by religion.” American Jewish identity, as opposed to Israeli Jewish identity, is still defined through religion.  This fact is made clear through the Zionist Congress elections, where three quarters of the delegates (or, 109 out of 145) for the American delegation represent parties affiliated with religious movements.  Additionally, a vote for one of the secular parties does not necessarily mean that one does not identify with Judaism as a religion.  However, the elections results show that the religious leadership has a mandate to speak for the Jewish community.

The Mercaz USA faction, representing the Conservative movement in the United States, won 25 delegates, one more that the 24-member faction of the Religious

Zionists.  Even combined, the Conservative and Orthodox parties still have fewer delegates than the Reform party.  This result again matches the Pew report, where 22% and 12% of Jews by religion identify as Conservative and Orthodox Jews respectively, as compared to the 40% who identify as Reform.  The disparity is found in how well the Religious Zionists did in the elections as compared to Mercaz USA.  According to the Pew Report, only 4 of the 12% of Jews by religion identifying as Orthodox are in fact “modern Orthodox.”  And as modern Orthodoxy is the wellspring of religious Zionism, we have here also an extraordinary success story, where 4% of the total has won 17% of the Congress delegates (or 24 of 145).  However, the disparity is understandable when we look at the Pew findings on emotional attachment to Israel.  The report found that 77% of modern Orthodox Jews were “very attached to Israel” as opposed to 47% of Conservatives and 24% of Reform.  However, if we adjust the Pew numbers on the denominational breakdown of American Jewry to consider only those “very attached to Israel,” as that is the group most likely to vote in the Zionist Congress election, the Conservative movement should have come out on top with the Reform as a close second.  That is, according to Pew, 10.3% of American Jewry should be Conservatives who are very attached to Israel, 9.6% should be Reform who are very attached to Israel, and 3.1% modern Orthodox who are very attached to Israel.  While one can crunch numbers here in any combination of variables, what we see is that the modern Orthodox community did very well in the election given its small percentage of the American Jewish population.  The fact that its faction dropped by seven delegates since the last election can only be credited to the extent of ARZA’s victory.  Because the size of the Reform faction, as we found, matches its share of the American Jewish population, the Reform movement exceeded what could have been expected if only those who were “very attached to Israel” voted.

The 25 seats won by Mercaz USA represent 17% of the total, which, again, comes close to the 22% of Jews by religion who identify as Conservative according to Pew.  While the Conservatives should have done a little better given that there are more Conservative Jews who are “very attached to Israel” over Reform or Orthodox, there is no doubt that some of those “very attached to Israel” Conservative Jews voted for other parties.  (I say this because, among other data, some of them are listed on the slates of other parties.)  What was interesting was that the total number of votes for Mercaz USA was 9,890, comparing very closely to the 9,594 votes for the Religious Zionists.  This is interesting to me because I have often been in conversations where people have tried to convince me of the futility of Conservative Judaism where the commitment to Jewish traditon is (allegedly) minimal as compared to Orthodoxy.  My response has often been that if we look at absolute numbers as opposed to percentages within congregations, the numbers are probably very similar.  That is, across the board, there are probably just as many very committed Conservative Jews as there are Orthodox, except that the Conservative Jewish population is dispersed across the country while the Orthodox population is more concentrated. The Zionist Congress elections, more than the Pew report, show that the numbers of strongly committed modern Orthodox and Conservative Jews are roughly equivalent.  Of course, I am not counting the ultra-Orthodox population in this comparison.

Overall, the results of the Zionist Congress elections show us that a working alliance between the Reform and Conservative movements will control the majority of the American Jewish delegation, which was to be expected.  At the same time, the election results contribute to our understanding of the pluralism of voices that make up American Jewry. That is a very positive contribution that we can all make to world Jewry. 

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Vatican to Recognize State of Palestine

BREAKING NEWSWednesday, May 13, 2015 11:03 AM EDT
Vatican to Recognize Palestinian State in New Treaty
The Vatican said Wednesday that it had concluded a treaty to recognize Palestinian statehood, a symbolic but significant step that was bound to be welcomed by many Palestinians but was likely to cause deep concern for the Israeli government.
Formal recognition of a Palestinian state by the Vatican, which has deep religious interests in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories that include Christian holy sites, lends a powerful signal of legitimacy to the efforts by the Palestinian Authority’s president, Mahmoud Abbas, to achieve statehood despite the long paralyzed Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Israel has grown increasingly alarmed about the increased international acceptance of Palestine as a state since the United Nations upgraded the Palestinian delegation’s status in 2012 to that of a nonmember observer state. A number of European countries have also signaled their acceptance of Palestinian statehood.
Pope Francis, the leader of the world’s 1 billion Catholics, has long signaled his wish for a Palestinian state. For the past year, the Vatican had informally referred to the country as “state of Palestine,” in its yearbook as well as in its program for Francis’ 2014 visit to the Holy Land.
A statement from a joint commission of Vatican and Palestinian diplomatic officials, posted on the Vatican news website, said “the work of the Commission on the text of the agreement has been concluded,” and that it will be submitted for formal approval and for signing “in the near future.”

Friday, April 3, 2015

Ethanol Gasoline on Pesach

On Apr 3, 2015, at 12:39 PM, Howard Kastner wrote:
Dear Rabbi,

I have a diesel car and I usually prefer to fill it with a biodiesel blend that contains soy because I believe it better for the environment. 

Following our discussion earlier this week that we are not permitted to gain any benefit from chametz during Pesach, can I drive my car with biodiesel during Pesach, or must I use regular diesel?

Similarly, during Pesach, would someone driving a regular gas car not be permitted to use gasoline with ethanol because it’s made from corn?

Thank you. 

Howard Kastner

Biodiesel is made exclusively from kitniyot, such as soy or corn.  My understanding is that biodesel from one of the 5 grains (wheat, barley, spelt, rye, or oats) is not economically viable in the industry.

DERIVATIVE products of kitniyot, used for NON_FOOD purposes, are competely PERMITTED on Pesach.  Ethanol fuel is another excellent catergory of a permitted product.


Robert Tobin 
B'nai Shalom
Office: 973-731-0160
P Please consider the environment before printing this email.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

God G-d. Allah All-h.

On Mar 26, 2015, at 12:31 PM, [omitted] wrote:

Dear Rabbi:

I was surprised to see that you wrote ".. with God's help", rather than "with G-d's help" as I was taught in my youth.  Is the way I learned it an Orthodox tradition rule?


Dear P,

G-d is a option, but since it is one of many non-Jewish names of God, it should be joined by All-h, and Jes-s, etc., which no one seems to do.

The rules against writing God’s name applies to the Hebrew names, since those names on paper or parchment require burial.

Chag Kasher v’Sameach, 

Robert Tobin 
B'nai Shalom
Office: 973-731-0160
P Please consider the environment before printing this email.

Original message follows:

In a message dated 3/26/2015 12:25:52 P.M. Eastern Daylight Time, writes:
Dear Friends,

We are sorry to tell you that our internet router was fried by a power outage this morning here at the synagogue.  Therefore, until they are able to fix it (tomorrow with God’s help), our staff are unable to receive your electronic communications, etc., or to send any emails to you.

For reservations to Friday night’s dinner with Rabbi Asekoff, or to our second night Seder next week, or for any other reason, please CALL our front office during business hours:  973-731-0160.

From my cell phone,

Robert Tobin 
B'nai Shalom
Office: 973-731-0160
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Non-Jewish Members of the Synagogue?

From: Robert Tobin <>
Subject: Re: Question
Date: March 24, 2015 at 1:25:51 PM EDT
To: [omitted]

The topic is a live one among Conservative rabbis to be sure.

Since “shul" is a made up category, there is no biblical, rabbinic or halakhic authority to clearly define the term “shul membership” and who it applies to.  Therefore it is a matter of policy, not religion in that sense.

Basically, non-Jews making decisions about the form of religious expression would be inappropriate. Jewish people should not determine who the priest in church is, or if the mass is in latin or not, even if their spouse is Catholic.  This is no different.  Therefore, non-Jews voting on which rabbi to hire (or fire), cantors, religious school directors, etc., is to be avoided in the opinion of most Conservative synagogues.  Since synagogue membership carries with it voting rights, they draw the line at the word “member,” only allowing Jews to be members and thereby maintaining that all members have the right to vote and hold office.

That is the simplest, but not the only way to handle the situation.  Many synagogues allow the non-Jewish spouse to serve on committees. What if they are president of the sisterhood, and by laws say that sisterhood gets a voting seat on the board? The dominoes fall quickly.

Probabably best, give the rate of intermarriage and the movement’s need to attract people to our form of Judaism, would be a “Jewish Membership” and a “non-Jewish membership” which would clearly delineate the priveledges and responsibilities of each category, kind of like a country club with “social” “golf” and “tennis memberships.”

But it is a live issue to be sure.

Robert Tobin 
B'nai Shalom
Office: 973-731-0160
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On Mar 24, 2015, at 12:57 PM, "T" and "H" ...... wrote:
Hi rabbi,
"T" here. My bro-in-law had a question for me that I must pass to you for a reliable answer. This is in regard to some sensitive proposed changes to our SHUL in upstate ny. (If that info makes a diff). Here's the question:
"What authority is there for the premise that Conservative synagogues do not admit non-Jews as members?"
Thanks in advance for your attention. 
Ps. A sweet and kosher pesach to you, "L" and the kiddies! 

Sent from my iPhone