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Why our moral compass trumps religion

On Shira Banki and the dilemma of young Orthodox Jews forced to choose between what is commanded and what is right

This is for Shira Banki, the young woman who was brutally murdered at the Jerusalem gay pride parade; her beautiful soul is finally ascending the heavens. Now it is our task to take charge of her legacy.

According to tradition, the soul of the deceased stays behind for seven days after the body is buried (the traditional shiva period). The Rabbis believe that the soul hovers over her former home during that period to ease the pain of transition for her bereaved loved ones. Shira was buried last Monday. This past Sunday, therefore, was the last day of shiva. Her soul is finally taking flight.

One can imagine the standing ovation she is receiving as God Himself, after bandaging the wounds inflicted upon her by a vile and Godless murderer, ushers her soul into heaven, guiding her towards her place in the celestial pantheon of the righteous. She is no doubt seated next to other heroes who, like she, were murdered for the sole crime of trying to bring Godliness into this world.

Her soul is leaving us, but her implicit legacy stays behind. While she did not articulate a legacy, her participation in the parade was a cri de coeur of a generation.

Shira’s presence at the parade is representative of a generation that feels abandoned by their elders at this crucial period, when world events seem to conspire to crush the spirit of young people by making competing demands on their consciences.

The Bible’s harsh attitude towards homosexuals causes a huge conflict for observant Jews. Their religious commitments tell them to discriminate against homosexuals, while their ethical compass tells them otherwise. This disconnect results in an existential battle, pitting one’s abstract convictions against one’s instinctive intuitions. For the moment, the conflict is at an impasse.

While the older generation is perfectly happy with the détente, the younger generation abhors it. Rather than living with dissonance, they resolve the conflict by themselves, letting the weight of their passions overwhelm the power of their beliefs. In the process, they often negate Judaism’s role in their spiritual development.

Estrangement from observance for this generation is not limited to this particular issue. The gay conflict has become iconic and archetypical. It has come to embody the larger tension of living a religious life in the twenty-first century, when the religious observer is repeatedly confronted with this dissonance, the conflict between one’s innate values and one’s deeply held beliefs. Young adults repeatedly resolve this conflict by ignoring tradition and following their intuition.

While this resolution is troubling to those of us who see benefit in a life that is deeply enmeshed in religiosity, their trajectory makes sense psychologically.

Children’s emotional maturity usually precedes their intellectual sophistication. A typical teenager’s passion for kindness and sensitivity to others, therefore, develops much earlier than his or her commitment to observance. By the time young adults are mature enough to identify with their religious community’s tenets, they have already long ago intuited a comprehensive moral compass. As a result, when their newfound beliefs pose a conflict to their long held convictions, the latter usually trumps the former.

Therefore, when given the choice between joining the march in support of gay friends or abstaining so as not to appear to be condoning religious transgression, most observant youngsters today would join the march, letting their morals trump their beliefs, in the process relegating religiosity to the dustbin.

The religious community needs courageous leadership in order to reverse this trend. If that does not materialize, we will soon find ourselves bereft of religious youth. We need to help them untangle this debilitating conflict, and show them a tradition that is in dialogue with their moral pursuits, not one that hampers and undermines them.

Tradition is the boat that allows us to survive the choppy waters of life. That boat has aged; it is now rickety and leaking significantly. The attrition rate among our youth is extremely high. While rabbis, teachers and educators have done admirable work in trying to stem the flow, more needs to be done. Instead of constantly plugging holes, maybe it is time we renovate and refurbish, retooling and replenishing the boat’s basic infrastructure.

Today’s young adults do not want pat answers. They want solutions that respect their intellects, but at the same time also honor their passions. They have been thrust into a world of paralyzing religious dissonance. We need to join hands with them to help make that burden bearable and perhaps even enjoyable.

That would be the most appropriate way to honor the legacy of Shira who paid with her life for the pursuit of her moral intuition.

May the memory of this righteous person be a blessing; zecher tzadika le’vracha.

About the Author
Rabbi Ysoscher Katz is the Senior Rabbi of PHS, a Modern Orthodox congregation in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, and Chair of the Talmud department at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. He received ordination in 1986 from Rabbi Yechezkel Roth, dayan of UTA Satmer. Rabbi Katz studied in Brisk and in Yeshivat Beit Yosef, Navaradok for more ten years, and is a graduate of the HaSha'ar Program for Jewish Educators, Rabbi Katz taught at the Ma'ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls and SAR High School, and gave a popular daf yomi class in Brooklyn for more than eight years.
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