The DOMA of Judaism

A recent piece that I wrote, “How Israelis out-rabbi the Rabbis,” based on interviews with three individuals who found loopholes to deal with the Israeli Rabbinate, had a variety of different responses, including a number of people who personally reached out to me in order to express their opinions. One person, who happened to be a former college acquaintance, surprised me with his argument in support of the Rabbinate maintaining its monopoly. The main argument that he presented was a need for a standard in Israel for all aspects of Judaism (marriage, kashrut, conversion, burial, etc) to prevent it from becoming diluted.

On a personal level, there were many parts of his argument with which I disagree. For instance, I disagree with his argument that we need to abide by the strictest standards to ensure a cohesive Jewish society, culture, and religion. I believe that embracing what is common and shared between all of us is what unites us as a nation and religion, and makes us stronger. The act of excluding individuals that belong to the Jewish people is what divides us and makes us weaker, not the other way around.

As he continued to make his case for the ultra-Orthodox Rabbinate maintaining its power, I began to recognize that he was using many of the same arguments I had heard before in another context. These were the same familiar arguments that some people in the United States use against gay marriage and in support of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). This was surprising to me because many of the American Jews I know are liberal and are for marriage equality. Hearing arguments being made for denying converts human rights and denying non-Orthodox Rabbis religious standing in Israel, sounded strange to me when it was coming from someone who I thought of as a secular American Jew. It seems odd that any liberal Jew would be willing to accept Orthodox Halacha, for no other reason than a particular group of men claim to have more authority over the religion to the exclusion of all other Jewish Rabbis and scholars.

This caused me to wonder if American Jews could be both for gays having marriage equality in the United States, but alternately against Jews having those same rights in Israel. So, I decided to create a list of some of the ridiculous arguments against gay marriage and parallel it to the arguments for maintaining ultra-Orthodox authority in Israel. This illustration is meant to demonstrate the blaring hypocrisy in supporting the rights and freedoms for gays in America, but not for disenfranchised Jews in Israel.

  1. Allowing non-Orthodox Jewish converts to marry will diminish Judaism, much like allowing gay people to marry will diminish marriage.
    If non-Orthodox converts are allowed to legally marry in Israel, then each individual Jew in Israel and abroad will not become less Jewish. This is the same as one couple’s marriage not impacting the validity or sanctity of another couple’s marriage.
  2. Halacha is not open to change, just like marriage isn’t open to change.
    Halacha, which was created by men, has evolved over time and has been and continues to be open to interpretation. Marriage has also evolved throughout the years – polygamy was once an accepted practice, widows once had to marry the brother of their dead husband, etc.
  3. If the Israeli Government gives approval for non-Orthodox marriages, then it is encouraging intermarriages, just as if gay people are allowed to marry then more people will become gay.
    The Israeli government currently does not allow non-Orthodox marriages; however, this does not prevent people from falling in love if one of them is not considered Jewish by the Rabbinate. Israelis that can’t get married in Israel still chose to live together, create families together, and often go abroad to get married. This is similar to how gay people continue to fall in love with each other even when they are denied the right to get married.
  4. Legalizing non-Orthodox marriages will cause Judaism to disappear just as gay marriage will destroy the fabric of society.
    The American Jewish community, which has more than 70% affiliation with the Reform and Conservative movement, is thriving as the second largest Jewish population in the world. The fact that women are not officially bought in a marriage ceremony, that nida is not kept, and that non-Orthodox converts are accepted is not causing a disintegration of Judaism or Jewish culture in the United States. Allowing people to marry whether, homosexual, heterosexual, non-Orthodox, Orthodox, Jew by choice, or Jew by birth, promotes family stability and a society based on equality and democracy.
  5. A child can not be Jewish unless the mother is Jewish, just as only gay parents raise gay children.
    Religion is not determined by mitochondrial DNA. Religion is a belief, a learned behavior. In fact, Judaism used to be determined by paternal lineage, and only changed due to external, political circumstances. Additionally, claiming that mothers who had non-Orthodox conversions are bound to raise children who become secular is similar to believing that gay parents can’t raise straight children.
  6. There are no instances in the Torah of converts marrying into the Jewish nation, just like marriage is only described in the Bible as between one woman and one man.
    Despite the current situation today, the Torah does not state that converts should only be allowed into the Jewish nation after going through a very strict and demeaning year-long course with the ultra-Orthodox Rabbinate. Ruth, King David’s grandmother, did not go through a stringent one-year conversion before being accepted by the Jewish people. She became Jewish after making an eloquent, yet strong statement of her desire to join the Jewish nation. Biblical history simply does not support making it difficult for one to enter the Jewish faith. Similarly, the argument against gay marriage that the Bible defines marriage as between one man and one woman is not supported by the Biblical record and thus not a legitimate claim. As an example, polygamy is an accepted form of marriage.
  7. Non-Orthodox marriages will lead to Christianity just like gay marriage could lead to people marrying their pets.
    Jews who marry in non-Orthodox ceremonies do not celebrate Christmas or baptize their children, just like no one is interested in marrying their dog. The sliding-slope argument is a dangerous one. It based on irrational fears to which religious conservatives, especially ultra-Orthodox Rabbis cling. For instance, advertisements with woman are banned in religious areas in Israel because of the fear that if a man sees a picture of an advertisement with a woman, then he might have impure sexual thoughts. Limiting people’s rights in order to prevent possible, and even unlikely, outcomes is a form of fear mongering-based control.

Many American Jews would not accept these arguments when it comes to keeping gay marriage illegal in the United States, but might consider these as legitimate reasons for giving the Rabbinate absolute power in Israel. This double standard shows that there is a need to do some introspective analysis of who we are and who we want to be as a Jewish people. There is no better time to do this type of individual and communal reflection than now, during the Jewish High Holidays.

In doing this type of analysis, the “who is a Jew” question” is ultimately not as important as the question of who do we want to represent and lead our Judaism. Do we want the people to represent and even define Judaism to be the same people who spit on eight-year old girls and call them sluts? Do we want the people who represent Judaism to be the same people who force women to sit in the back of buses and walk on the other side of the sidewalk? Should the people who have the power to define Judaism be the same people who refuse to let women sing in public or be pictured in advertisements? Do we want the face of Judaism to be the same people who insight their followers to attack our IDF soldiers for serving? Personally, I don’t think those people should be the sole representatives of Judaism nor should they have a monopoly over our religion and its ideas.






About the Author
Jessica Fishman moved to Israel from the US in 2003 and writes the Aliyah Survival Blog, an irreverent portrayal of life as an immigrant in Israel; Her new book, Chutzpah and High Heels: The Search for Love and Identity in the Holy Land, will be published soon
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