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entries tagged with: Rabbi Benjamin Yudin

 

Jews are on both sides of gay marriage debate

As a bill to legalize gay marriage in New Jersey heads for a full Senate vote, Jews could be found among the bill’s supporters and detractors, arguing the merits of both positions according to Jewish law.

Leading up to Monday night’s vote when the bill cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee, state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-37), a chief supporter of the bill, found herself in heated discussions with Orthodox protesters in Trenton about the need for Torah to be reinterpreted as society evolves.

At the heart of the argument, Weinberg told The Jewish Standard on Tuesday, is separation of church and state.

“It is about what the state sanctions and not what religion sanctions,” she said. “It is a civil rights issue.”

No rabbi, priest, or religious institution would be forced to perform a gay marriage under the bill, she emphasized. “I just don’t want other people telling me what’s appropriate in my own synagogue or to my rabbi,” she said. “He has that right.”

Rabbi Neal Borovitz of Cong. Avodat Shalom in River Edge praised the bill because of the choice it presents.

“One of the reason I can support this bill is it doesn’t require any clergymember to perform any ceremony they’re uncomfortable with,” said Borovitz, who is also Reform. “My freedom to officiate or not officiate at any ceremony remains intact.”

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State Sen. Loretta Weinberg is a sponsor of a bill legalizing gay marriage.

Jews have thrived in America because the First Amendment affords freedom of religion and freedom from religion, Borovitz continued. “It’s imperative that this state not become involved in those religious decisions,” he said.

Guarantees that they would not be bound to perform gay marriages were no consolation for rabbinical opponents of the bill. Rabbi Benjamin Yudin of Cong. Shomrei Torah in Fair Lawn, which is Orthodox, told the Standard that the Bible is not talking just to Jews when it says that “Man shall cling to his wife.” The gay marriage bill is “threatening the very core of society,” he said.

“Wherever you go, marriage has been a sacred institution,” he said, “and to go now and tamper with it is something that is very threatening to the moral fiber of society.”

Sarah and Leah are an Orthodox lesbian couple living in Bergen County who support the idea of legal equality but not gay marriage itself. The couple did not want their real names used.

“It doesn’t mean anything in terms of halacha,” Sarah said. “You have to have a different halachic process to get married.”

She pointed out that Jews can legally marry non-Jews, which is also forbidden under halacha. Judaism, she added, has a definition of marriage separate from the state’s.

“We’ve never felt the need to change our halachic definition based on a legal definition,” she said. If New Jersey passes the gay marriage bill, “that’s not going to force the situation halachically whatsoever.”

A civil marriage would afford the couple equal rights and protect future children they may adopt, Sarah argued.
“Our decision to have a civil marriage wouldn’t cause me to think we’re married in the eyes of God or a Jewish marriage,” she said. “I see it as legal protection.”

Separation of church and state, is what concerns Leah the most. “When the boundary between church and state starts to get fuzzy it’s really dangerous for Jews,” she said. “I don’t hear a lot of convincing arguments about why same-sex marriage shouldn’t be allowed that aren’t really based in religious beliefs.”

A legal marriage, Leah continued, would be mostly about ensuring the couple’s right to keep their family together. In that respect, pursuing marriage equality is part of tikkun olam, the Jewish mission to repair the world, she said.

“This will have no bearing on Orthodox synagogues,” she said. “The people it affects most are children. Children of couples who don’t have equal rights grow up feeling their family isn’t equal under the law.”

Yudin dismissed arguments that the state definition of marriage is separate from the Jewish definition. He will not perform any marriage ceremony without a state-issued marriage license.

“The law of the land is law,” he said. “Jewish law does not speak about a marriage law in the state of New Jersey. But we comply and live in accordance with the laws of the land and therefore do require that Jewish marriages have a civil license, as well.”

Gov. Jon Corzine has promised to sign the bill if it reaches his desk before he leaves office. Gov.-elect Chris Christie is opposed to gay marriage, which has led lawmakers who support it to try to rush the bill through. Yudin pointed to Christie’s election as proof that New Jerseyans don’t want gay marriage.

The Assembly has not yet taken action on the bill, which could stall its passage even if the Senate approves it. If the Senate does not pass the bill, however, proponents are prepared to keep working, Weinberg said.

 
 

Water power

Mikvahs abound in area

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The Teaneck Mikvah, on Windsor Road, serves 35 to 40 women every day. Photos courtesy Teaneck Mikvah Association

Shevi Yudin always hands out kosher Dunkin’ Donuts to local yeshiva high school girls after leading them on tours of the Fair Lawn mikvah. “Get the joke?” asked the Cong. Shomrei Torah rebbetzin with a hearty laugh. “Dunk-in’ Donuts? I want their first encounter with a mikvah to be a sweet experience.”

Immersing — “dunking” — in a ritual bath is a biblically mandated cornerstone of Jewish family life. (See sidebar.) Women are required to make their first visit just before marriage and continue through their childbearing years — which is why Yudin aims to present mikvah in a memorably positive light.

In Teaneck and Englewood, volunteer committees are working to raise funds for expanded facilities to serve a growing Jewish population. Rabbinic tradition teaches that building a mikvah takes precedence over building a shul, and mandates that the entire community is obligated to contribute toward its construction and upkeep.

Though none of those interviewed for this article specified dollar amounts, a modern mikvah costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to construct and incurs considerable ongoing maintenance expenses. A typical mikvah structure includes a reception area; preparation rooms with shower/bath fixtures; one or more ritual baths holding a heated mixture of rainwater and treated tap water; and a “finishing” area where women dry their hair. Prep rooms are wired with buttons that users press to signal the attendant that they are ready to immerse themselves. Most mikvah buildings also include a separate pool for immersing new cooking utensils, in keeping with Jewish law.

The first stage of Teaneck’s new mikvah opened in March. Serving 35 to 40 women daily from Teaneck, Bergenfield, and New Milford, it has 10 preparation rooms and two ritual baths.

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The mikvah in Tenafly on Piermont Road uses water from a spring. Jerry Szubin

Miriam Greenspan, president of the Teaneck Mikvah Association, explained that the old building will soon be demolished to make way for stage two of the project. This will add another 10 prep rooms and two ritual baths, including accommodations for people with physical disabilities and a specially appointed bridal prep room.

The project is a long time in coming; initial variances were granted for the new structure by the township’s Zoning Board of Adjustment in 2003. The board approved the final plans in 2006, after the Mikvah Association bought the house next door for maximum expansion. In the meantime, the old facility was operating with only six preparation rooms, leading to long wait times.

“Everything about the facility has been upgraded,” Greenspan said. “There is real excitement and gratitude from the community.” The association is still seeking donations, which may be made at http://www.teaneckmikvah.com.

The Englewood Mikva Association has been soliciting donations for the past few years to complete its new, larger facility. It recently hosted a dessert reception at Cong. Ahavath Torah featuring a keynote address by noted author/psychiatrist Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski.

Medinah Popper, president of the association, moved to town 30 years ago. At that time, Englewood and other Bergen County women were using the just-opened Teaneck mikvah. In the late 1980s, Cong. Shomrei Emunah included a small mikvah in its new building on Huguenot Avenue, intended for use on Friday nights and other times Orthodox women could not drive to Teaneck.

“But as soon as it was finished, there was a request to use it every day,” Popper said. Since 1989, this facility has been administered by the Mikva Association, an independent group. Last year, an average of 11 women used it daily. Though greater Englewood has five Orthodox synagogues and about 1,000 Orthodox and traditionally observant Jewish families, many women opt to use the larger Tenafly mikvah at Lubavitch on the Palisades.

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Shevi Yudin carries Dunkin’ Donuts for yeshiva high school girls touring the Fair Lawn mikvah. She stands at the mikvah’s memorial wall. Jerry Szubin

“As our population has been increasing exponentially, we’ve outgrown the size of the current mikvah,” Popper acknowledged. When Ahavath Torah finalized its plans for a new building about five years ago, unallocated space was offered to the association to build a new mikvah.

“The shul project was enhanced by having the [planned] mikvah inside of it, and we were happy to have a larger central location. But although we both benefit from it, we are financially independent of the shul,” said Popper, who expressed gratitude for the cooperation and support of all area synagogues and rabbis.

Because the infrastructure was installed simultaneously with the synagogue’s by the same architect, designers, and contractors, the shul laid out the money while the Mikva Association began fund-raising to reimburse all expenses. Two years ago, it became apparent that the costs would be higher than expected, necessitating a delay and a renewed round of solicitations. Once sufficient funds are secured, Popper expects the area could be completed within four months. At that time, it will become the community’s main mikvah.

Popper said the Mikva Association aimed for an aesthetically pleasing design “so a woman should feel pampered. At the same time, we have been cognizant that money should not be spent lavishly, so it will be attractive without being overly luxurious.” The design calls for two ritual baths and seven preparation rooms, including one especially for brides. Access will be available for the disabled.

“You really want to be very appealing to young people,” said Popper. “We get a lot of young women from non-Orthodox backgrounds who would like to use the mikvah, and of course we’ve always accommodated them.”

Shevi Yudin — like many other area rebbetzins — holds classes for prospective brides to learn the laws and customs surrounding the mikvah. Her students often include women who took her tour when they were in high school.

When she and her husband, Rabbi Benjamin Yudin, came to lead the nascent Cong. Shomrei Torah 40 years ago, building a mikvah was a priority. It was not until 1990, however, that the small mikvah was completed; it was refurbished five years ago. About 75 to 100 women use it each month, according to Doris Brandstatter of the Fair Lawn Mikvah Committee.

Though the Fair Lawn mikvah has paid attendants on weeknights, Yudin accompanies women on Friday and holiday nights, as well as at off hours. She also accompanies female converts and older married women, often Russian immigrants, who have never used the mikvah before. Some are looking for a spiritual way to address marital or fertility issues.

But it is the bridal visits that mean the most to Yudin, whose own first immersion was less than pleasant. “I pride myself that kallahs [brides] here have a very special experience. I walk them down the steps of the mikvah, singing as if it’s the beginning of their wedding. If their mothers come with them, we all dance together afterward. I give every kallah [bride] a beautiful handbook, and I try to write a personal note inside with my phone number. I try to connect in a very personal way, and they know they can call me for advice any time.”

Her involvement in local domestic violence prevention has sensitized her to the fact that not every new marriage is happy. “I make a habit of checking with my kallahs six months later to find out how things are going,” Yudin said. “Every once in a while I uncover problems that way.”

Yudin related that a close friend died of cancer a week before her niece’s wedding. Before her passing, she had asked Yudin to accompany the young bride to the mikvah and also sent a beautiful robe to be designated for brides at the Fair Lawn mikvah.

On another occasion, Yudin got into the ritual bath with a bride who was terrified of water. Her fiancé, who had been afraid his future wife would be unable to complete the immersion, called Yudin afterward and suggested they all meet for coffee to celebrate.

“It’s never a routine kind of thing,” said Yudin, “because you’re involved with people.”

 
 

Burning issue

Local rabbis discuss Koran burning, sermon topics

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A page from the Koran FILE Photo
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Rabbi Arthur Weiner, top, Rabbi Benjamin Yudin, Rabbi Jordan Millstein, Rabbi Ephraim Simon, and Rabbi Neil Tow

Calling Florida Pastor Terry Jones’ proposed burning of the Koran on Sept. 11 both “catastrophically stupid and fundamentally immoral,” Rabbi Jordan Millstein, religious leader of Temple Sinai in Tenafly, said such an act would have major repercussions.

Jones — pastor of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla. — has proposed that 9/11 be declared “International Burn a Koran Day.” Defending his idea on MSNBC’s “Hardball” on Aug. 26, the pastor said, “We want to send a very clear message” to Muslims that Sharia law is not welcome in America.

“It will likely be publicized all over the Islamic world, confirming in the minds of many Muslims that we hate them, that we are in a ‘clash of civilizations,’ and America’s real goal is not to stop terrorism but to attack and defeat Islam,” said Millstein. “This will only serve to strengthen extremists and terrorists in the Islamic world.”

The rabbi added that, as a Jew, he is “appalled and disgusted at the thought of someone burning the scriptures of another faith. How could anyone heap such disrespect upon another person’s cherished beliefs? It is astounding how low some Americans have gone in their prejudice and hatred.”

Rabbi Ephraim Simon, executive director of Friends of Lubavitch of Bergen County and religious leader of Marcus Chabad House, pointed out that “we have to be very sensitive to book-burning,” since we have seen our books, Torah scrolls, and talmudic texts burned throughout our history.

“It’s not a proper Jewish response to 9/11,” he said. “The proper response is to focus on adding acts of goodness and kindness, acts of love, to the world. We have to point out evil where we see it and stand up to it, but not everyone who studies the Koran is evil.”

Rabbi Neil Tow of the Glen Rock Jewish Center said. “The first thing that came to mind was the burning of the Talmud and other Hebrew books over the centuries — France in the 13th century, Italy in the 16th, Poland in the 18th, and Nazi Germany in the 20th. My sense is that choosing to burn a holy book in a public way can cause those who are religiously moderate to feel under attack and make radicals feel even more justified.”

Tow suggested that burning a holy book is an act of violence directed at the symbol of a people and that “violence only leads to more violence. We have to short-circuit the cycle of violence and find other ways to address the issues — in this case, the relationship among faith groups.”

He recalled reading “Fahrenheit 451” in middle school, which first introduced him to the idea of book-burning.

“I [fear] a place where if people don’t like ideas, they feel they can be torched and destroyed. I hope it’s not the kind of world our children will live in. Our society has always tried to foster a pool of ideas and debate about them. If there are things that are troubling or difficult or potentially harmful around us, we have a responsibility as American citizens to have a lively and engaging debate about it. I don’t think burning books is in the spirit of the ‘American way’ of talking things through.”

Tow added that he is also a book lover, with a “fondness for the wholeness of the written word and the books that contain them — whether they are things I agree with or not.”

“We should oppose [Jones’] actions and activity with the same passion we opposed the Westboro Baptist Church when they visited our area last fall,” said Rabbi Arthur Weiner, leader of the Jewish Community Center of Paramus. “Were we in Florida, I would insist that our [Jewish Community Relations Council] publicly oppose this horror, and join with those who oppose it. As it is, I am confident that our national organizations as well as local Florida communities are handling this well.”

Weiner said that despite Jews’ historic differences with both Christianity and Islam, “we have always held all faiths in esteem, even if we had to protect ourselves from their adherents.”

He noted that while Jones’ projected actions may be constitutionally protected speech — though, he added, he is not sure of that — “they are immoral, and completely and 100 percent forbidden by Jewish law.”

Rabbi Benjamin Yudin, religious leader of Shomrei Torah Orthodox Congregation in Fair Lawn, said that burning a Koran “is not simply politically incorrect but borders on morally incorrect. The Jewish people paid dearly when the books of the Rambam were burned,” he said, “so we don’t burn books. That’s not the way to do it.”

What they’ll say in their sermons

While the rabbis agreed that political issues provide great fodder for sermons, those who are already certain of their High Holiday sermon themes will look in another direction.

“As a rabbi and spiritual leader, I always emphasize and focus on what we can do to make ourselves better people in every aspect of our lives,” said Simon, “better parents, better spouses, better friends. Ultimately, the High Holidays are a time we can reflect on our unique purpose and mission in the world.”

Simon said he will challenge congregants to ask, “Am I am utilizing all of the gifts God gave me to make a difference in people’s lives and in the world? We have to look at the past, reflecting within our own lives and [exploring] what we can do to improve on the past to make a difference.”

Tow said that on the first day of Rosh HaShanah he’ll look at some of the ways “we can begin to connect more closely with the words and messages of the prayer books … becoming more sensitive and connected in our davening.”

He said the focus of what he wants to communicate is that “aspects of prayer that can sometimes make it difficult for us can be used as opportunities for growth.”

On the second day of yom tov he will continue his tradition of looking at the Akedah, or binding of Isaac, from different points of view.

“This year, I’ll look at it from the point of view of the angel who calls to Abraham to stop.” He’ll use that as a starting point “to see if it’s possible for us in what we do and say every day to be more aware [and] in the moment,” truly perceiving the impact of what we do and say. “Is it possible to catch ourselves if we’re starting to move off the path, like the angel gave Abraham an insight in that moment, telling him to stop? We need to develop a more sensitive self-awareness.”

Tow suggested that if, instead of having to fix things afterwards, we catch ourselves as we’re about to go into something, “we can be an angel to ourselves.”

Weiner of Paramus said he will explore the issue of Jewish identity and the importance of reinvigorating that aspect of our lives. He said he has always believed that the High Holiday audience “is fully three-generational” and “rabbis have to craft a message that can reach everyone. It’s a challenge.”

He said that “some of the things we’re seeing, particularly in the non-Orthodox world, indicate or confirm our alienation, or the trend toward living low-impact Judaism.” The data, he said, “are symptomatic of a much larger issue: our self-perception as Jews.”

He will urge members to make their Jewishness an integral, basic part of their identity.

“The key to helping us get back on track is to reassert that identity,” he said. “How do we go about achieving this? Come to services and find out.”

Rabbis have to be careful speaking about political issues, he said. While they should address them, they should also be careful to distinguish between their own political opinions and “those laws God gave to Moses.”

No rabbi walks that “fine line” perfectly, he said, “but we have to make sure what we are sharing in the name of Torah is reflective of the Torah’s values and not our particular opinions.”

Asked what he will speak about at High Holiday services this year, Yudin laughed, saying, “You’re kidding, right? I’ll talk about Torah, mitzvot, and why it’s important to perpetuate Jewish tradition. What else is there?”

“It’s all in the packaging,” he added. “However I said it last year, I’ll say it differently this year, and in 15 different ways. And next year, I’ll talk about it again.”

 
 
 
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