|In the days of the Bible, the way Jews connected to God was by sacrifice – setting aside an animal or grain offering as kadosh, sacredly separate; not to be eaten but to be offered as thanks to God, the Provider of all food. In the Torah, great attention is paid to the condition of the animal or grain and great care would have been taken to ensure that the sacrifice was “done right”. As farmers or merchants or shepherds, Biblical Jews were in touch with the land in a way that few of us are today, and so the most powerful form of offering was one that was from the land.When the Temple was finally destroyed, the rabbis faced a huge dilemma – close up and go home or adapt. And they adapted. Where before Judaism was based around the Temple, now it was going to be around the synagogue. Where before Judaism was based around sacrifice, now it was going to be around prayer and Torah study and acts of loving-kindness. And while sacrifices ceased to be relevant, making food holy continued and continues today through the systems of brachot (blessings) around food and kashrut.
Before some Jews bite into that juicy peach, they say “You are so blessed, Eternal God, Ruler of time and space, who creates the fruit of the tree.” And before some Jews fill their shopping trolleys, they pause to see if the food they are buying has been inspected by a kashrut authority, such as the Beth Din.
But is the food these authorities put their stamps on really kosher? Is it kosher to eat a peach that is wrapped in cling film and nestles on a polystyrene tray so that it stands less chance of being bruised? Is it kosher to eat a potato that was grown in soil drenched in poisonous pesticides? Is it kosher to drink Kiddush wine from plastic cups that are not bio-degradable?
Is it kosher to drink coffee that came from a plantation where the workers are not paid a minimum wage or given contracts? Is it kosher to eat an egg which was laid by a battery chicken fed on growth hormones and antibiotics and not given the chance to cluck outside in the fresh air its entire life? Is a fish still kosher if it is caught in an area contaminated with mercury by mass-fishing techniques such as drag nets that de-harvest the sea of its bounty?
These are questions that most kashrut authorities do not even ask. They regard them as completely irrelevant to the criteria required for a kashrut certification. And that is where the problem begins. The system of kashrut is a mitzvah commanded in the Torah. What a Jewish person can and can’t eat is referred to in four different places, but the most detailed can be found in Leviticus, Chapter 11 which contains a catalogue of prohibited and permitted animals.
After the list the rationale given is: “For I am the Eternal your God; sanctify yourselves, therefore, and be holy, for I am holy (kadosh).” Keeping kosher is a discipline that is supposed to emulate God, to make us holy beings. Interestingly, the word kadosh, usually translated as ‘holy’, comes from the Hebrew root k-d-sh meaning ‘separated out for sacred purposes’. The sacrifices that we mentioned at the beginning of this article were known as hekdeish from the same root – a lamb or goat that was set aside for the purpose of sacrifice, not to be eaten or sold along with the rest of the flock. What does being ‘holy’ mean? It means to separate oneself from the mundane, to lift oneselves up to be God-like. And what is God like?
In a striking piece of Talmud, the rabbis listed ways that we can emulate God’s nature. Taking examples of God’s characteristics from the Torah, the Talmud gives us a number of qualities that we ourselves should strive for:
So being God-like involves justice, compassion, sensitivity, responsiveness. It involves clothing the naked, visiting the sick. It is not just about checking the ingredients of food, it is about the whole web of life that is sustained through eating.
In the beginning of the Torah, when God creates human beings, Adam is placed in the Garden of Eden l’ovdah ul’shomrah – to work it and to look after it (Gen. 2:15). There is a powerful midrash written more than 1500 years ago that picks up on this theme:
So too are we expected to look after the land we live on today. As the Torah often suggests, if we don’t look after the land as God instructs us too, then the land will not look after us. (see Deut. 11:13-21)
The Shabbat is our day of rest and replenishment. After working for six days, we are called upon to set aside a day to enjoy the fruits of the world as it is. According to the Torah, the land is supposed to have just such a rest, a Shabbat. It is called the shmittah, and it involves farmers leaving their land fallow, unworked, every seventh year (Lev. 25).
In the modern State of Israel today, Jewish farmers use a halachic loophole called the Heter Mechirah to sell their land to a non-Jew during the shmittah year in order to allow the farming to continue unimpeded. This is, admittedly, a controversial practice that many Orthodox rabbis oppose, but it nevertheless happens and has happened since the return of Jews in numbers to the land in the late 19th Century.
The reason it was introduced was so that farmers who would never have been able to sustain their farms without working through the seventh year were given a lifeline by the rabbis to do so. But it was always seen as a temporary measure – now, after more than a century of continuous farming, that land has never enjoyed the benefits of the shmittah year and there is no sign of that changing in the near future. What is the cost to the land? What is the cost to the quality of its produce?
When one orders a kosher meal on an aeroplane, the heated meal comes double-wrapped in aluminium foil. Each individual item on the tray is often contained in a sealed plastic unit and then the whole tray itself is sealed in plastic only to be opened by the passenger. There is more plastic and foil on your tray than food! And this is kosher? The ingredients may be, but the packaging is not.
And what about veal? How can the meat from a calf that is separated from its mother at birth, held in a pen that is too small for it to walk (so that it doesn’t build muscle – too tough!) and bottle-fed milk and growth steroids its entire short life until it is killed, be kosher? How can you even think of putting a hechsher (certification stamp) on a veal product? Veal clearly conflicts with another torah mitzvah, tzar ba’alei chayim – not causing pain to animals – but apparently this is not a consideration when establishing the kashrut of its meat.
These are questions that someone concerned with Eco-kashrut needs to ask. The status of food goes beyond the ingredient list – it goes right through the supply chain, from the fertiliser to the pesticide (organic food uses far less to none of both), from the wages of the farmworkers and the conditions of their employment to the distance the food is shipped to your local shop (check if your paw-paw comes from South Africa or South America – the Earth is paying for the difference in the oil used to ship it). It includes the amount of packaging and the chances of recycling it, and the percentages of unnatural substances (MSG, genetically modified food etc) contained in the ingredient list.
Judaism teaches us to see ourselves as interconnected beings. We all stem from Adam and Eve, we all were created by the same God and are sustained by the same worldly abundance. The system of kashrut has always asked us to see ourselves as inseparable from the food that we place into our mouths – “we are what we eat”. Choosing to take great care over what we eat is just another way to make ourselves kadosh, holy. Considering the implications of eco-kashrut today combine the spiritual principles of traditional kashrut with the ethical and practical challenges that living in a rapidly developing world require.
While these are early days, rabbis and organisations all over the world are investigating the practicalities of bringing in an eco-hechsher (certification stamp) that would take into account not only the kashrut of ingredients, but the entire supply chain that created the product. In the meantime it is up to us all, the consumers, to do the work ourselves – in the words of Rabbi Tarfon, while we are not obliged to finish it, we are not free to stop trying (Mishnah Pirkei Avot, 2:21).
Progressive Judaism embraces our traditions, and works to make them meaningful parts of contemporary life. Personal responsibility, egalitarianism, community and local tradition are the hallmarks
Ten questions and answers about South African Progressive Judaism, as described in the 1980s by the late Rabbi Dr David Sherman of Cape Town. (Note that some of these practices have since changed).
Our movement encourages a progressive attitude to environmental issues, and has joined an inter-faith initiative dedicated to environmental and social justice
The SAUPJ has made a landmark decision to recognise same-sex marriages. Rabbi Greg Alexander explains the reasoning behind the decision and how this relates to Progressive Jewish principles.
Biblical commentators, Jewish and Christian, hold that the Bible is unambiguously opposed to homosexuality. But Professor Frederick Greenspahn argues that the scriptural references have been misinterpreted. From the CCAR Journal, a US Reform quarterly. (In PDF format: 67kb)
Orthodox Jews in South Africa regard Reform Judaism as ‘not really Jewish’. Here’s why that’s not true, writes Rabbi Greg Alexander
Sept 2013 – Sept 2014
Sept 2014 – Sept 2015
Sept 2015 -Sept 2016
|S’lichot||Sat Aug 31||Sat Sep 20||Sat Sep 5|
|Rosh Hashanah||Thurs – Fri Sept 5 – 6||Thurs – Fri Sept 25 – 26||Mon – Tues Sept 14 – 15|
|Yom Kippur||Sat Sept 14||Sat Oct 4||Wed Sept 23|
|Sukkot||Thurs – Fri Sept 19 – 20||Thurs – Fri Oct 9 – 10||Mon – Tues Sept 28 – 29|
|Atzeret/ Simchat Torah||Thurs Sept 25||Thurs Oct 16||Mon Oct 5|
|Channukah||Thurs – Thurs Nov 28 – Dec 5||Wed – Wed Dec 17 – 24||Mon – Mon Dec 7 – 14|
|Tu Bish’vat||Thurs Jan 16||Wed Feb 4||Mon Jan 25|
|Purim||Sun Mar 16||Thurs Mar 5||Thurs Mar 24|
|Pesach||Tues – Mon Apr 15 – 21||Fri – Thurs Apr 3 – 9||Sat – Fri Apr 23 – 29|
|Yom Hashoah||Mon Apr 28||Thurs Apr 16||Thurs May 5|
|Yom Hazikaron||Mon May 5||Wed Apr 22||Wed May 11|
|Yom Haâ€™atzmaut||Tues May 6||Thurs Apr 23||Thurs May 12|
|Lag Bâ€™omer||Sun May 18||Thurs May 7||Thurs May 26|
|Shavuot||Wed Jun 4||Sun May 24||Sun June 12|
|Tishah B’av||Tues Aug 5||Fri Jul 31||Fri Aug 19|
|The Durban Sisterhood has won the Or Ami Award for Excellence in Sisterhood Programming for its work with the Mavela Creche in Ndwedwe, which it has supported for the past four years.The project forms part of a programme of the World Conference on Religions for Peace, aimed at child-headed households, orphans and other vulnerable children in rural communities. The Sisterhood of Temple David in Durban is a founder member of the pilot study and continues to be a major partner in the project.The Or Ami “Light of my People” Award, which will be presented to the Durban Sisterhood at the Women of Reform Judaism’s (WRJ) biennial conference in the US in December, honours a sisterhood or district that undertakes outstanding and significant social action, community service, or educational projects.”This is, I believe, the fourth time this award has been made by the WRJ to a South African Sisterhood,” said Monica Solomon, president of the South African Union of Temple Sisterhoods (SAUTS). “It is a wonderful achievement for the women in Durban who have done wonders at this creche.
“Kol Hakavod to all of you on winning this prestigious award. Your Sisterhood has set an outstanding example to us all,” she said.
There are a number components to the Mavela project, of which a few include:
MAVELA CRECHE. The first part of the project, intended to ensure that older siblings in child-headed households could go back to school. Mavela crÃ©che opened in February 2003 with 36 children. It grew very rapidly. The Sisterhood built a new classroom and ablution block in 2004/5 and today there are 91 pupils in the school, aged from six months to five years, many of whom are from child-headed households and orphans.
FOOD DROP OFF. Thirty two child-headed households – families who have lost their parents to HIV AIDS – are supported through funds provided by the Jakamar Trust and other donations. The Sisterhood does food drops every four to five weeks, and provides blankets, clothing, assistance with school uniforms and school fees.
CHILDREN’S TRANSPORT. The Sisterhood pays for transport of children who live too far to walk to the crÃ©che. Initially 25 children were transported, but the costs of transport have increased and fewer children are now transported.
INCOME GENERATING CENTRE. The Sisterhood has assisted in building a log cabin which will be used for income-generating projects to create capacity and sustainability within the community. This is done in conjunction with the Friends of Mavela in Holland and Dianne McColl and family. The Sisterhood is now looking for projects and assistance in setting up these programmes. The women have started making clothes for children in the community and hope to obtain a sewing contract from the Department of Health.
BABY CENTRE AND HOME BASED CARE HOSPICE. The Sisterhood are collecting funds to provide a room for a baby centre at the crÃ©che, where space is now at a premium. There are also plans to build a room for home-based care workers to meet and train, as well as a place for patients to come for relaxation and care.
Care-givers and children line up outside their crÃ©che after a day spent repainting it. The drab white walls were transformed into hills and trees and flowers and a river with fish. More than 25 people were involved, including children from the child-headed households.
Click here to see the full photograph.
The Or Ami award
The United Sisterhood received the Or Ami Award for the MC Weiler School in Alexander Township, Johannesburg, in 2005, the year it celebrated its 60th anniversary. The primary school was started in 1945 by Rabbi Moses Cyrus Weiler, his wife Una and Rita Marx, in order to get the children off the streets of the township and into school. The United Sisterhood, with the help of its sponsors, provides food, clothing and education for these children.
The Or Ami award-winners are selected according to the following criteria. The programme should:
The founder of Progressive Judaism, Rabbi MC Weiler, encouraged the women who attended his services to form a sisterhood where they would work for the movement and the community at large. That was the beginning of the SA Union of Temple Sisterhoods
The United Sisterhood, umbrella body for the three Johannesburg-based synagogue sisterhoods, is world-renowned for its social action programmes in areas like Alexandra
For more than 60 years, the MC Weiler School in Alexandra has provided education, food and uniforms to children from the poorest families
For more than two decades, a unique school at Bet David has enabled hundreds of poor students from Alexandra to pass their matric
Nelson Mandela is patron-in-chief of the Temple Israel (Johannesburg) project MaAfrika Tukkun, which works with underprivileged and street children in Hillbrow
|MaAfrika Tikkun was established in 1995 as a foundation to make a difference in the lives of underprivileged South Africans through empowering communities to uplift themselves. MaAfrika Tikkun has projects running throughout South Africa.MaAfrika Tikkun’s Hillbrow Project – a crÃªche – is based at Temple Israel in Hillbrow. MaAfrika Tikkun supplies this project with equipment for the school and training for its teachers, and the children are taken on various outings during the year.
According to the MaAfrika Tikkun Times, a Review of 2004, the school is now fully recognised by the government and a parents’ association has been established.
“MaAfrika Tikkun donates blankets, food and clothing to the Hillbrow street children and, twice a year, hosts parties for about 200 children.”
Former president, Nelson Mandela, is the ‘patron-in-chief’ of MaAfrika Tikkun. Other patrons include Gill Marcus, Raymond Ackerman, Eric Ellerine, Bridgette Radebe, Cyril Ramaphosa, Ronnie & Bertie Lubner and many more. Its chief executive officer is Herby Rosenberg.
“In the early days, MaAfrika Tikkun was approached to develop projects that would assist disadvantaged and impoverished communities in a variety of ways,” says the review.
“Experience has taught us to focus on the particular fields of expertise in which we excel. These include: skills development; pre-school education and development of crÃ¨ches; day-care for the elderly and renovation of homes; primary health care and support with the emphasis on assistance to HIV/AIDS-affected patients and their families; home economic skills training, including computer literacy and instructor training; taking care of orphans and vulnerable children; and feeding schemes for vulnerable groupings; among others.”
Temple Israel chair Reeva Forman and Head of Projects Anne Harris with MaAfrika Tikkun children
Contact Reeva Forman for further information. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
THE Mitzvah School celebrated its coming of age at the end of 2007. A birthday party for alumni, sponsors and other guests was held at The Middleton on the grounds of Bet David.
Guest speakers included Khotso Schoeman, CEO of Kagiso Trust and Moshe More, CEO of Dinala Trust, both of whom were among the first pupils of Mitzvah School in 1987.
Other speakers included Mitzvah School founders, Molly Smith and Lesley Rosenberg (current principal), and alumni, Noko Leopeng, who helped organise the event. Current and past Mitzvah School learners provided the entertainment.
Over the past 21 years, the Mitzvah school has touched the lives of thousands of youngsters and put them on the road to achieving success. Doctors, lawyers, businessmen and women, entrepreneurs, actors, musicians and more have graduated from Mitzvah School since its inception in 1987.
Alumni, current learners, sponsors and other guests attended the Mitzvah School’s 21st birthday celebrations
Desmond Sweke, chairperson of Bet David, with Rabbi Robert Jacobs, Bet Davidâ€™s rabbi
Phineas Khosa, the Mitzvah School bus driver, has driven learners to and from Alexandra since the school began
The Class of 2002 sing a tribute to bus driver Phineas Khosa
Former student Noko Leopeng helped organize the 21st birthday celebrations
Khotso Schoeman, who matriculated in 1987, is now CEO of Kagiso Trust
|All together now. Principal Lesley Rosenberg and former students blow out cakes representing each of the school’s 21 years. Each former student represented the graduating class of a particular year, blowing out candles in honour of that year. The cakes were donated by the Bet David Sisterhood
For more than two decades, a unique school at Bet David has enabled hundreds of poor students from Alexandra Township to pass their matric. Principal Lesley Rosenberg tells the story
THE Mitzvah school was started in 1986 at the height of the apartheid-era State of Emergency, as a crisis class providing a year of tuition to matric students from Alexandra Township. At that time, the country was in turmoil. The student slogan was “Liberation before Education”. There were, however, students who felt that being involved in politics was not helping them shape a future for themselves and who wanted to complete their schooling.
With assistance from various companies and individuals, including the management and rabbi of the Bet David congregation in Sandton, the school opened with 25 students, some of whom, unbeknown to us, had been political prisoners. Molly Smith was the principal at that time. She and I learned a tremendous amount about the needs of young people in Alexandra and felt that we should continue until the crisis in education had passed.
We were an illegal school and our students were registered at Alexandra High. After two years, we became a registered school and examination centre. When the students in the township had “stay-aways” or the teachers were on strike, our school was not affected. We were able to forge ahead and assist young people to pass their matric in beautiful and carefree surroundings taught by dedicated, well-qualified and experienced teachers.
We have consistently produced a pass rate of over 90%. By comparison, the national average is just over 50%, and some of the schools from which our students come have pass rates as low as 12%. For the past four years (2004 to 2007), we have achieved 100% pass rates, a remarkable achievement, as our students are with us for only one year.
We try to expand the students’ horizons in every way and give them a feeling of self-worth. We have many guest speakers on subjects such as Aids awareness, drug and alcohol abuse, women and child abuse, street law and vocational guidance.
Some of our students are involved in projects in Alexandra Township. Mpho Malatji, a student at Wits University who matriculated at Mitzvah School, is a mathematics tutor at our school and also runs a Saturday school at the Scripture Ikemeleng Centre in Alexandra. He helps students from Alexandra with mathematics and science and is assisted by past students of Mitzvah School. These students also help him run a project at Ikemeleng to keep young children and youths occupied during school holidays and weekends.
Principal Lesley Rosenberg … “we try to expand horizons”
First principal of the school, Molly Smith … ‘an illegal school”
Many of the past students revisit the school to assist us with various aspects of the school. Shera Masheka, a past student, initiated a feeding scheme in Alexandra. Nonhlanhla Sithole has graduated as a medical doctor. Nonhlanhla came from an extremely deprived background, and with the assistance of the community and the Mitzvah School he is now able to go back in to his community and “give back”.
We are assisted by the Bet David Sisterhood to help students who require food and clothing. Certain sponsors provide bursaries and we have set up a small bursary fund ourselves to help past students with tertiary education.
Students pay a nominal monthly amount for school fees and transport. The amount they pay does not cover the monthly cost per student (some of the students are unable to pay at all) and the shortfall has to be covered by our own fund-raising efforts. We no longer receive a government subsidy as we have only one class and are considered an elite school.
We have been extremely fortunate to receive funding from the business sector. The JD Group, a company listed on the Johannesburg Securities Exchange, came to our rescue some five years ago, when we were on the verge of closing the school. The JD Group continues to give us a substantial monthly sum, without which we would not be able to survive.
We are often able to find sponsorship for students who are unable to pay their school fees and these sponsors take an interest in their progress at school and sometimes even into tertiary education.
In the past few years, we have formed a relationship with MaAfrika Tikkun. We were very pleased last year to receive new desks and chairs from them and we were able to pass the old desks and chairs on to the Scripture Union in Alexandra.
More than 1 000 students have passed matric at Mitzvah School, and we are proud to have been involved in their lives. Many of them have graduated, some work in the banking and retail sector, to name a few, and many study part-time to achieve their goals.
Molly Smith with some of the Mitzvah School teachers at the school’s 21st celebration
Our school, with the help of the Bet David Sisterhood, provides breakfast daily for 75 Aids orphans at Zenzeleni Lower Primary School in Alexandra. We also have birthday parties for these children. We provide school uniforms and shoes for those children who come to school without shoes and are very poorly clothed. We have also been assisted to provide glasses for those children who have eye problems.
We have a feeding scheme in Eighth Avenue, Alexandra, providing breakfast and lunch daily for about 120 pre-school children as well as indigent adults in the area. The students of Mitzvah School assist to collect food monthly. This we do by standing outside supermarkets and asking the shoppers to assist with our feeding schemes. The community is extremely generous, and we are able to feed these people and send food parcels to child-headed families. The ‘kitchen’ in Eighth Avenue is however extremely basic, and in dire need of upgrading.
Our income is mainly spent on teacher salaries to ensure that we retain our staff, most of whom having been with us for many years. We spend very little money on upgrading the school, but feel that we now need to concentrate on giving our students a solid background in computer studies, an area where we feel we have failed. Here again, MaAfrika Tikkun has come to our assistance and installed six new computers for us. Our library and science laboratory remain in desperate need of upgrading.
If you can help the Mitzvah School in any way, please call +27 11 883 7177 or email email@example.com, or visit the school’s website at http://www.mitzvahschool.org.za. Source: Shofar 2006
YOU can help the Mitzvah school every time you go shopping – and it won’t cost you anything.The MySchool programme, which has raised R5 million for 600 schools across the country, has been introduced at Mitzvah School.
What you need is a special MySchool card ordered from the Mitzvah School. Each time you shop at a MySchool partner outlet, the vendor pays a percentage to the school – without adding anything to the price charged to you.
MySchool affiliates include Woolworths, CNA, Spar, Mica, Waltons, Link pharmacies and many others.
To support the Mitzvah school, please order a card by phoning the school on +27 11 883-7177 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. (South Africa only.)
The Mitzvah School is a non-profit organisation, number 006-883. It can be contacted via Bet David, PO Box 78189, Sandton, 2146Tel/fax: +27 11 883-7177Website: http://www.mitzvahschool.org.za
The Mitzvah School holds a huge party, attended by ex-pupils and sponsors, to celebrate 21 years of matric success
|The South African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute is an institute of people of many faiths, united in our diversity through our common commitment to earth-keeping. Our aim is to support the faith communities in fulfilling their environmental & socio-economic responsibility. The institute was founded in July 2005. Rabbi Hillel Avidan, chairperson of the SAAPR, is the SAUPJ representative on SAFCEI.OBJECTIVES
In the spirit of our respective faiths, through collaboration, networking, research & action, our objectives are to:
We uphold as core values the principles of the Earth Charter:
RESPECT AND CARE FOR THE COMMUNITY OF LIFE
Respect Earth and life in all its diversity
Protect and restore the integrity of Earth’s ecological systems, with special concern for biological diversity and the natural processes that sustain life.
SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC JUSTICE
Eradicate poverty as an ethical, social, and environmental imperative.
DEMOCRACY, NON-VIOLENCE AND PEACE
Strengthen democratic institutions at all levels, and provide transparency and accountability in governance, inclusive participation in decision making and access to justice.
Treat all living beings with respect and consideration.
Promote a culture of tolerance, non-violence and peace.
Some issues SAFCEI is addressing
Economics and Ethics:
Biodiversity and Extinction:
Reduce, Recycle, Re-use:
For the future of life the faith communities need to be involved. Our goal is to build a sustainable future for life on earth.
Enquiries: Rabbi Hillel Avidan
Tel: +27 31 208 6105
For further information, go to our website: www.safcei.org.za
|Why are we taking this decision now?
In December 2006, South Africa became the fifth country in the world to grant same-sex couples the same status and rights as heterosexual marriage partners. Our rabbis and lay leaders have, after long and thoughtful deliberation, and in the spirit of what Progressive Judaism is about – inclusion of all Jews regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race or ethnicity – decided that the time is right to give full recognition to same-sex couples who commit themselves to each other in a Jewish marriage.
Are we the first movement to do this?
The Progressive movement has come a long way on this question. Our fellow movements across the world have over the past 15 years made clear statements of where they stand. The Reform movement in America recognises the right of its rabbis to officiate at same-sex chuppahs, while the British Liberal Movement performs blessings over same sex unions. The American Conservative movement recently allowed gay and lesbian rabbis to be ordained by its seminaries, at last bringing them in line with all other non-Orthodox seminaries in that country.
However, due to civil legislation, none of these movements has been in a position to consecrate same-sex marriages both religiously and civilly. Due to South Africa’s legislation, we are able to do that. In November 2006, Israel’s highest court ruled that same-sex marriages that were legally performed in other countries will now be granted legal recognition in Israel.
What is the Orthodox position on this?
Orthodoxy has also moved a long way on this question. Where in the past there was blanket condemnation of homosexuality, over the past 30 years several recognised Orthodox rabbinic authorities have accepted that homosexuals do not have a “choice” over their orientation and that, while any homosexual act would be condemned as a “ma’aseh aveirah” (a sinful act), an outwardly gay man or woman can be a fully functioning member of an Orthodox community so long as they remain celibate.
This has not been seen as going far enough by a great number of Orthodox members as can be witnessed by the screening here of “Trembling Before God” and the visit of the Orthodox homosexual rabbi, Steve Greenberg.
Why are we calling them “Marriages” and not something else?
To call a Jewish ceremony recognising the lifelong commitment of a same sex couple to each other anything other than a marriage would imply that we see them as different from a heterosexual couple. This would defeat the purpose of our decision which is to grant equal recognition to all Jewish couples.
But this is against God’s law!
While this may be against Orthodox halachah as it stands today, there is no way of knowing what God feels on this subject. Judaism has always been concerned with trying to understand God’s intentions through study of Torah, and that is exactly what we have done in this case. The overwhelming principle that we have followed is that we are all made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, and that requires that we do not in any way diminish or separate out the loving commitment of two Jews to each other, whether they be of the same or different sex.
Halachic sources over the past 2000 years do not deal with the possibility of a lifelong monogamous loving relationship, since they were written in societies that did not permit such things to take place. We can understand the existing laws as protecting men and women from abusive sexual relationships, which we fully support.
OK, but doesn’t the Torah clearly condemn same sex relationships?
The Torah condemns many things which rabbis over thousands of years, uncomfortable with the ethical implications, have sought to redress. Early examples are the stoning of a rebellious son (ben sorer u-moreh Dt. 21:18) which the Mishnah uses legal arguments to restrict to the point of practically impossible; the requirement of two witnesses in a legal case (al pi shei eidim Dt. 19:15) which the Talmud reduced to one in the case of confirming the death of a husband in order to allow his wife (the agunah) to remarry; and Hillel’s prozbul which allowed Jewish businesses to bypass the forgiving of debts once every seven years (Dt.15:1-2). In the last case, the Mishnah (Gittin 4.3), simply states: “Hillel established the prozbul in order to repair the world.”
That was then. What about more modern examples?
A much more modern Orthodox example is the case of a deaf person. According to the Talmud, a deaf person was considered to be retarded, mentally incompetent, an imbecile not able to serve as a witness or to be counted in a minyan, or to effect marriage or divorce. After visiting the Vienna Institute for the Deaf, Orthodox Rabbi Simcha Sofer (late 19th Century) saw that their impaired speech and hearing had nothing to do with their intelligence and accountability, and urged altering the older Rabbinic judgement. New information must lead halachah to respond anew.
In the Progressive movement, we now take for granted the equal involvement of women as rabbis and cantors, being counted in a minyan, called up to the torah and leading services in our synagogues. Our movement does not recognise the demeaning labels of mamzerim (bastards) and agunot (women unable to remarry). In all these cases, Progressive Judaism has taken its stance despite the Torah’s apparent stance.
Jewish law can’t just change to suit new fashions
That is true – but homosexuality and lesbianism are not fads. They have existed as long as human beings have and psychology and now legislation are recognising that fact. In the past, halachah has tried to respond to new information and social realities, and it needs to do so now too.
Are we not separating ourselves from the Jewish community?
Judaism is a wide umbrella that covers a full spectrum of observance and belief. While we don’t expect everyone to agree with our position, there are a great number of Jews who do, and those who don’t we ask, as we do in all matters, to respect it. We believe that Judaism needs to speak to the issues of the time, and in that respect not taking a positive position on this issue would be avoiding a major source of pain and prejudice in the Jewish community today.
Across the world, the entire Jewish community is currently debating and reviewing its position on the issue, and who knows where the other movements will be in 25 years time. We, the Progressive Movement, are not prepared to wait for them to catch up. We will take the lead, and others can decide whether or not to follow.
Can’t we just keep this all quiet – what someone does in their own home is entirely up to them?
Once again, the reason that the SAUPJ has made this declaration public is because we believe that a loving, monogamous relationship, irrespective of the gender of the couple, deserves to be sanctified in front of one’s family and community. Keeping this private would not achieve the egalitarian aim of this decision.
Find out more
For more information, call Rabbi Greg Alexander on 021 552 2484 or email him at email@example.com
Most biblical commentators, Jewish and Christian, hold that the Bible is unambiguously opposed to homosexuality. But Professor Frederick Greenspahn argues that the scriptural references are often misinterpreted. From the CCAR Journal, a US Reform quarterly. (In PDF format: 67kb)
Progressive Judaism embraces our traditions, and works to make them meaningful parts of contemporary life. Personal responsibility, egalitarianism, community and local tradition are the hallmarks
Document outlining the current practices of congregations affiliated to the SA Union for Progressive Judaism (In PDF format:100kb)
Ten questions and answers about South African Progressive Judaism, as described in the 1980s by the late Rabbi Dr David Sherman of Cape Town. (Note: Some of these practices have since changed)