Doesn’t it sound like heresy? But it is not. If the Jewish tradition makes one thing clear it’s, we must think for ourselves. Just like science (albeit all differences), at the end of the day, in Judaism, argument tops authority. (One must have a really winning claim, not just a nice thought, to win it from Albert Einstein or Rabbi Akiva, but in principle, that is possible.)
Sometimes, a reason is given that makes no sense. We may try to find a better justification. To be convincing, we should also explain why the traditional basis is given despite that it doesn’t seem the real rationale.
No Tachanun on Tisha be’Av
Think about it. Is there any other aspect of Jewish festivals in Tisha be’Av? And why is it omitted in a house of mourning? Could the reason really be “not to add to the mourner’s grief by highlighting God’s judgment”?
The fundamental reason is obvious for anyone who considers the question. Tachanun is having a counseling session with the Almighty.
In a house of mourning, our sessions are with people. G^d doesn’t insist that we’d open our hurting hearts to Him. He will provide healing, but through others being His emissaries, as I wrote recently.
On Tisha be’Av, it’s worse. We have no One to talk to. The whole idea of repairing the causes for the destruction of the Temples is to face why G^d didn’t want to listen to us anymore. Since the destruction is ongoing, we don’t chat with the Almighty about how hard it was as if it’s all over.
The rabbis attached the idea that Tisha be’Av will become a Festival to this custom not to say Tachanun — a hint of a hopeful future. The real reason, though, is something else altogether. We won’t get a comforting session, yet. Yes, our crying comforts. But for that, we should cry about how hard it is now. Not about how hard it was. Collectively, we have still to improve.
Saving a Non-Jewish Life on Shabbat
The rabbis tell us that we are allowed, no: obligated, to save a non-Jew’s life even if we must violate the Shabbat doing so, because if we wouldn’t, they wouldn’t save us or even attack us. But, this cannot be the reason.
We don’t find we don’t save a Nazi because he wouldn’t save us anyway.
But, more importantly, any moral person would save the life of any human being, no questions asked. And Jewish ethics cannot be less moral than Gentile ethics. Jews must save anyone’s life because we would be immoral if we didn’t. So, why don’t the rabbis say so?
They reason for saving a life because Shabbat is a serious thing we don’t violate unless we must. So, the rabbis argue three things. One, the Torah says it is given to live by, not to die for. Two, it’s better to violate one Shabbat to (hopefully) enable many proper Shabbats to follow. And three, since for Jewish law, Jews are all responsible for each other, one Jew can violate a Shabbat to save a fellow Jew who then should keep many more.
However, those three reasons don’t apply to non-Jews. They aren’t even allowed to keep the Shabbat the way Jewish Law prescribes. Therefore, the rabbis had to come up with different ‘reasons’ to save a non-Jew. Yet, the real reason is that, as moral people, we can’t let anyone just die.
Jew or Gentile
Orthodox rabbis will tell you that one is either a Jew or a Gentile, half-Jews don’t exist, and non-Orthodox conversions are meaningless.
They talk like that for weighty reasons, but for a deep reason, it’s untrue.
They say so for three reasons. One is either obligated (a Jew) or forbidden (a Gentile) to keep Shabbat completely. (Luckily, non-Orthodox Judaism doesn’t insist on keeping Shabbat in all its details.) Jewish Law so creates an all-or-nothing situation. And conversion is a serious issue that should not be left to rabbis who don’t practice Orthodox Judaism. Judaism has always been a kaleidoscope of different ways and beliefs, especially in the non-Ashkenazi traditions. But, some Ashkenazi Jews tend to not stay mainstream but split off and start their own ‘tradition.’ The Rabbis don’t want to acknowledge those innovative communities and principles.
However, it’s not true that it’s all or nothing. I’ll give you three examples.
When a Gentile comes to the rabbis and says, I want to convert, they will question the motives and advocate against that. Better a good Gentile than a sinning Jew. But if you have a Jewish grandparent besides your mother’s mother, they’ll ask: Do you have a teacher? Can we help?
I knew a person who converted to Judaism. But, when she wanted to get married, the local Rabbis did not accept her status. She had to do the ritual bath one more time. She said: But, without the blessing. It can only be a matter of stringency, not a real conversion because I’m a Jew already. I told her: Don’t worry about it. They will not dare to advise you to violate every Shabbat from now on. It’s only a formality. And that’s how it went.
I know this family of a Jewish father, and a mother who converted with a truly Reform rabbi. They got four kids and lived truly convinced they were really Jewish. But upon making aliyah, to their surprise, they learned they were not acknowledged as Jews by the rabbis here. They all (except the father) were sent to convert. Later, many of the daughters of these kids married men from the priestly tribe. The rabbis never made any trouble. (Kids of converts can’t marry priests.) So, the conversion was a formality. But, the lessons they all learned to get there we very meaningful.
Someone proudly told an Orthodox rabbi that he converted in a certain community the rabbi knew as not Orthodox. Eight more men joined and wanted to say the afternoon prayers, for which you need ten Jews. One counted and started leading the prayers. The rabbi didn’t say anything. He didn’t want to embarrass the convert as that’s a sin worse than a capital crime. (It’s no shame to be a Gentile, but he was proud to be a Jew.)
Why all this flexibility? Because we really don’t know who’s a Jew. When the Messiah comes, he’ll tell us who is Jewish (and which Tribe, for land-ownership) and who is not. Until then, in practical situations, we need to decide one way or the other. But that’s not on the ultimate grounds.
Homosexuals and Sex
It makes no sense at all to assume that some group of grownups could live without being sexual. And Jewish law doesn’t prescribe behavior that is impossible to adhere to for the average person.
Homosexuals should not marry women since that typically ends in non-monogamy, divorce, and heartbreak for all involved. They should not have intercourse with men. And, they should not have any other form of sexuality since that is forbidden as ‘spilling of seed.’ Makes no sense.
Modern Orthodox rabbis say that homosexuals must refrain from inter-male penetration since that’s a capital sin for them, an indulgence while avoiding the responsibility that comes with a wife and kids.
However, for homosexuals, as for most other people, sex is the way to cling to a partner to have a good life. (Homosexual here is not defined as someone having same-sex sex, or who abhors other-sex sex, but rather, someone who can cleave to a person of the same gender via sex.)
Rabbis who know homosexuals argue that they must cling to a fitting partner too. The other rabbis look as silly and stupid as those who ‘allow’ G^d to use gravity but not evolution. And they look cruel, immoral for abandoning people for what they are and need, not for what they choose. They seem removed from reality and our times, living in their own bubble.