Friends, this is has been a weekend of contrasts, Shabbat and the 17th of Tamuz; Eating and drinking one day, fasting the next.
More critically, Independence Day on Shabbat, mourning the destruction of Jerusalem on Sunday
July 4th – celebration of a wonderful country, a Medina shel Chesed, a haven for Jews, perhaps the first country in 2000 years we can feel truly safe.
And on Sunday the three weeks of mourning – the reminder that America is Exile – began.
And on this weekend of contrasts, opposites, what better week to read Parshat Balak, that parsha that deals with such opposites – blessings and curse, Israel and the nations, rectitude and sin?
And in one of its most famous moments, Bilaam, asked to curse but finding blessings on his tongue instead opens his mouth and utters words that have defined much of Jewish history from that moment.
הֶן-עָם לְבָדָד יִשְׁכֹּן, וּבַגּוֹיִם לֹא יִתְחַשָּׁב
“Behold it is a people that dwells alone, that is not reckoned amongst the nations.”
This is almost a perfect description, and a deeply relevant one, of what it means to be a Jew in the modern world. For this weekend of joy and mourning, and also how we as Jews, Orthodox Jews, Torah Jews, should view last week’s supreme court ruling on gay marriage.
What does it mean to be an am livadad yishkon – especially in America?
What is a role of a nation that dwells alone, in a multi-cultural melting pot?
When the Jewish people faced their first exile, on the eve of the destruction of the first temple, the Almighty set a message to them through the prophet Jeremiah.
בְּנוּ בָתִּים, וְשֵׁבוּ; וְנִטְעוּ גַנּוֹת, וְאִכְלוּ אֶת-פִּרְיָן.
5 Build ye houses, and dwell in them, and plant gardens, and eat the fruit of them;
ו קְחוּ נָשִׁים, וְהוֹלִידוּ בָּנִים…
6 take ye wives, and beget sons and daughters; … and be not diminished.
ז וְדִרְשׁוּ אֶת-שְׁלוֹם הָעִיר, אֲשֶׁר הִגְלֵיתִי אֶתְכֶם שָׁמָּה, וְהִתְפַּלְלוּ בַעֲדָהּ, אֶל-יְהוָה: כִּי בִשְׁלוֹמָהּ, יִהְיֶה לָכֶם שָׁלוֹם.
7 And seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray unto the LORD for it; for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace.
What is our role in exile? Build, plant, marry, survive, prosper, grow. Observe our religion.
What about the rest of the society? What are our duties? Well clearly be law abiding citizens. But also – וְדִרְשׁוּ אֶת-שְׁלוֹם הָעִיר
And pray for the peace and security of the state.
As Jews we contribute to, advocate for the physical safety and security of our host countries.But nowhere, nowhere at all, are we bidden to impose our views on others. Put simply it is not the role of Jews, nor should it be, for us to mold American society to Jewish values.
We can live exemplary lives. We can and must be people of honesty, morality, probity. But we are not supposed to ensure that Torah becomes the law of this land.
Am livadad yishkon!
We have our rules, our way of life.
And that I think is ultimately the way we must react as Jews to the Supreme Court ruling. We don’t ask the rest of the world to observe shatnetz, kashrut. And we don’t ask the rest of the world to observe Jewish laws on marriage. Yes, sexual laws are counted amongst the Sheva Mitzvot Bnai Noach, incumbent on all humanity – but so is ever min hachai, eating living flesh – but as far as I know no rabbinic organization has demanded legislation to ban lobster eating by gentiles in America.
What are we supposed to do in exile? We are supposed to remember that we are in exile. Our job, our aspiration, should be the building up of vibrant religious, strong Jewish communities.
We are bidden to maximize Torah observance in this world. Secular recognition of gay marriage is not a Jewish issue. How many Jews come to shul on Shabbat, come to shul for mincha, keep kosher? Those are Jewish issues. Our job is to draw Jews, including ourselves closer to Hashem and keeping Mitzvot. It is not dictating laws to the rest of society.
Let me tell you about a place a few hundred miles from where I grew up.
The Isle of Lewis is a remote Scottish island. It was one of the last places is the UK where the Sabbath – Sunday – the protestant Sabbath was kept strictly. No cars, riding bikes, certainly no shopping, children weren’t even allowed to go to the park to play on swings.
But the world, apparently, changes. And even remote parts of Scotland are part of secular, modern society nowadays. And a few years ago the Scottish government announced that they were going to allow ferry services from the mainland to Lewis on Sundays, for the first time ever. Amongst the Churches and religious population of Lewis this was terrible news, and there were angry protests.
There are no Orthodox Jews on Lewis. But how should we have responded if we lived there?
I think as Jews, we of course should feel a twinge, regret, and a real sense of sadness when we see values that we strongly identify with being replaced as outmoded. And moreover I think if you don’t feel at least a twinge of regret at that, I think that’s a terrible thing. And in America today I think it’s hard for religious people to rejoice when we see an institution that begins almost on the first page of the Bible, being radically reinterpreted. It is not in our power to change the Torah, God forbid we should ever want to.
But, again whatever the emotions are there is a fact at stake. And that America is, and this is its strength and the reason why today is a day of celebration for Jews as well as gentiles – America is a free country. That it allows freedom to all, not just to some. All of us, but especially Jews, benefit from freedom, and the more the better.
And to be clear my words here refer to secular marriage. If the law of the land was that as an Orthodox Rabbi I either officiated at a Gay Wedding or went to prison, I would go to prison, and so would every other Orthodox Rabbi in the country. But I do not think that is something that is of concern.
Tomorrow is the Fast of Tammuz. For the next three weeks we will mourn the destruction of the temple. We will reduce our joy, no weddings, no music, haircuts, and movies. It’s the bleakest part of the year. And we should be deeply mindful of the reason the temple was destroyed. Sinat chinam – hatred. To borrow a phrase from the mourning of the Omer – שלא נהגו כבוד זה לזה
Division, lack of respect bring terrible ills to a society.
The magazine “First Things”, a religious, conservative, right wing leaning magazine held an online symposium on reactions to the Supreme Court ruling this week.
And among the contributors, Rabbi Shalom Carmy, a professor at YU and the editor of Tradition Magazine was invited to contribute.
In contrast to almost all of the other entries, that lamented liberal takeover of America or religious persecution, Rabbi Carmy’s stands out as a model of decency and much needed humility.
He opens with words of genuine contrition that ring so true, for the way that traditional communities have treated gay individuals. He issues a call for religious communities to recognize they have failed people.
“Worse, many of us tolerated without protest bigoted and vulgar voices alien to our sense of decency and outside the bounds of God-fearing discourse. Shall we take umbrage now when those whom we allowed to be humiliated turn their resentment and intolerance on us and on the religion we represent? For this we must repent, before God and before our fellow men.”
As we begin the three weeks of mourning, let us remember that the mandate is in these days is for us to learn to treat others with dignity and respect. And that I think is the real role that we can potentially play to help in the morning after the Supreme Court.
I mentioned earlier that the prophet Jerimiah reminds us that our role in exile is
וְדִרְשׁוּ אֶת-שְׁלוֹם הָעִיר
To seek the peace of the city, the society.
And wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing if the way that orthodox Jews react to the new realities in America could indeed be a model for society, religious and secular as a whole.
Many people know that our shul was proud to be a sponsor of the first ever conference for mental health professionals on the needs of Orthodox Jewish Homosexuals. I was panelist on the opening session.
And the shul was very supportive of my decision to participate.
And I went for two reasons. The first was to listen and learn. I care about the welfare of every single member of our community. And I would do anything, anything to help any individual in our community, gay or straight. And it was a duty and a privilege to be there.
But I also went with a message. A plea really
וְדִרְשׁוּ אֶת-שְׁלוֹם הָעִיר
None of us, none of us wants a situation in Judaism that is developing elsewhere in America where religious communities and individuals are at war with gay individuals. There has to be a better way. There are terrible cultural wars going on in America. We don’t need to read a case of a rabbi or a kosher baker being sued for not participating in a gay marriage. And we don’t need to read in the same paper about a lack of welcome on the part of shuls to individuals whoever they are.
Those battles aren’t inevitable.
They stem from antagonism, from hatred, as Rabbi Carmy says, from unacceptable intolerance that leads to a divided society.
In these three weeks when we focus on respect and bridge building, let’s be much much better.
You don’t have to agree with others, or even approve of their choices, to be able to treat them with respect. But while what you think of other people is up to you, how you speak to them and treat them really is not. And at least in our communities – all parts of the Orthodox world, but without question our shul, everyone is welcome, and will always be welcome, and no one, ever, should ever be subject to belittling or hateful remarks, prejudicial statements or hurtful statements.
Where there is mutual respect, societies can heal. Where there is shalom, there is redemption. We can be loyal Torah Jews, and be good citizens, we can be loyal Torah Jews and whatever our sexual orientation or political opinions, treat each other with love understanding and respect. And if we can do that, we can help heal America, we can build a more peaceful world, and maybe, just maybe, we can hasten the coming of Mashiach Tzidkeynu bimehyra byamenu.