Friday, October 1, 2010

Sins of Omission

Jews around the world recently observed the beginning of a new year, highlighted by a day of prayer and fasting known as Yom Kippur – Day of Atonement.  The day-long service gives us many opportunities to reflect on our deeds over the past year and enumerates the list of sins which we may have committed.  We contemplate sins in various aspects such as those we have committed under duress, and those which we have committed willingly.  Another way to categorize our transgressions is to consider those we have committed overtly versus those we have committed by not taking the correct action.

Most Jewish communities have local newspapers, usually published weekly, that contain news and articles of interest to the local Jewish community.  Here in South Jersey, the Voice, published in Cherry Hill, fulfils that need.  North Jersey, which has a higher Jewish population density, has several such newspapers, one of which is the Standard based in Teaneck. 

Since these newspapers each serve a relatively close-knit community, it is customary for them to carry articles about life-cycle events such as births, bar/bat mitzvah, engagements, weddings, anniversaries, and obituaries.  They do so for all branches of Judaism, from the most traditional to the most liberal.  On September 24, the Standard published an engagement announcement celebrating the upcoming marriage of two individuals with deep Jewish roots.  One works in the Manhattan office of an organization in Jerusalem that treats blind children with multiple disabilities and his father is the principal of a prominent Jewish day school.  The other is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary and is working on an advanced degree in Jewish Studies.  They plan to be married next month.  Both are men.

Just like in the secular community, the Jewish community is divided on the issue of marriage equality.  The Orthodox, which is the fastest growing portion of the Jewish community, is more traditional and is vehemently opposed to same-sex marriage.   The Reform movement is the liberal wing, and same-sex marriage is permitted.  Generally, Conservative Judaism is considered middle-of-the-road – embracing egalitarianism while maintaining most of the more traditional customs such as kashrut – the Jewish dietary laws.  The Conservatives follow Halacha (Jewish Law), but unsurprisingly rabbis have come up with varying interpretations.  It’s fairly safe to say that each Conservative synagogue can determine its own policy toward same-sex marriage.

While there is much overlap in the secular and religious debate, there are some important differences to take into account.  As I pointed out in an earlier blog post, there is no legal basis to prohibit same-sex civil marriage in the United States, but the court battle is still a work in progress.  And no proponent of marriage equality is proposing that religious marriage ceremonies be conducted outside the tenets of the faith.

After the Standard published the engagement announcement, there was apparently some virulent feedback from the more traditional community.  In this week’s issue, they published the following: 
We set off a firestorm last week by publishing a same-sex couple's announcement of their intent to marry. Given the tenor of the times, we did not expect the volume of comments we have received, many of them against our decision to run the announcement, but many supportive as well.
A group of rabbis has reached out to us and conveyed the deep sensitivities within the traditional/Orthodox community to this issue. Our subsequent discussions with representatives from that community made us aware that publication of the announcement caused pain and consternation and we apologize for any pain we may have caused. 

Then, the editors of the Standard went on to announce that they were going to commit a sin of omission: 
The Jewish Standard has always striven to draw the community together, rather than drive its many segments apart. We have decided, therefore, since this is such a divisive issue, not to run such announcements in the future. 
This policy is hypocritical on many fronts:

First, a joyous event like the merging of two families through marriage does not drive the community apart – it brings us together.  How does alienating and casting out of a loving couple promote the Jewish value of Tikkun Olom – repairing the world?

Like many American Jewish newspapers, the Standard accepts advertising from non-kosher restaurants.  Those who choose to observe kashrut to its ultimate degree can choose not to eat at those establishments just as they can choose not to marry a same-sex partner or not to read an engagement announcement.

Unlike in Israel, here in the United States, there is no “chief” rabbinate.  Each of the observant communities follows its own religious tenets while typically working with each other on community projects, support for Israel, and other aspects of Jewish life.  Jews in America must be inclusive, not exclusive, to continue this good work.

The Orthodox are certainly entitled to their strict interpretation of Halacha and no one is proposing any changes there.  But to foist their beliefs on the community at large and disenfranchise their fellow Jews goes against all of the principles of Judaism that my parents and grandparents blessed me with.

Events of the past week show the disastrous results when we cast out or marginalize members of our community.  The Standard should reclaim its mantle as a community newspaper and reverse its unwise policy regarding engagement announcements.  Sins of omission are as wrong as sins of commission.

1 comment:

  1. I definitely agree. We should be promoting klal yisrael, not sinat chinam. It's shameful and cowardly for the paper to back down, to let one segment of the Jewish community have a veto over everyone else. I wonder whether the Standard accepts birth and bnei mitzvot announcements where the mother of the child is not Jewish?