August 20, 2019

Letters to the editor, May 26 edition

Interpreting Biblical Concubinage vs. Rape

Danielle Berrin misunderstands me. Biblical concubinage can be termed rape only from later ethical perspectives (“Rape of the Handmaid,” May 12). Although exegetes inevitably interpret from their own historical and value standpoints, their task is not to discredit or reject the texts they interpret. Biblical narratives depict slavery and patriarchy, because these systems were omnipresent throughout the ancient world. The people who transmitted the narratives could not imagine alternative systems.

But Judaism does not consist only of the Bible. Judaism is a tradition. A tradition is a conversation among many participants over many generations, about the right and the good. Neither slavery nor gender oppression is an inherent Jewish value.  Judaism is committed to justice. Participants in our conversation try to determine what is right and good by interpreting sacred texts and on the basis of s’vara, contextually situated rational argument, according to Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits. As I explained to Berrin, Jews do not read the Bible like fundamentalists. Our texts are sacred because they are inexhaustible. We return to them, bringing ourselves, our contexts, our experiences, and we bring away new insights and new obligations. For Jews, there is no single “correct” interpretation. I make this claim, not because I am Reform, but because Judaism’s sacred texts, including writings long after the Bible, rest on this assumption.

The meaning of justice evolves through socio-historical contexts, reflected in the texts of Talmud, midrash, codes and Jewish philosophy. As we understand justice differently, our obligations change. Hence, Rabbi Chayyim David Regensberg (Mishmeret Chayyim), ruled that it would not be halachically permissible today to reinstitute slavery. Analogously, I’d say, now that we have names and analyses for the system of gender oppression, it too becomes impermissible. Moreover, now that Jewish women are among the participants in the Jewish conversation, their input too, affects the determination of justice and the evolution of Jewish thought. 

I will not be an accomplice to trashing Judaism’s sacred texts to enshrine an ahistorical “correct meaning.” Gender justice can be achieved while honoring the complexity and the multi-vocality of Judaism.

Rabbi Rachel Adler

David Ellenson Professor of Modern Jewish Thought, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion

Berrin responds: I am deeply disheartened that Rabbi Adler misunderstood my column. Not only did I quote her accurately, I specifically acknowledged her view that a multiplicity of interpretations is inherent to our tradition. I would never “trash” Judaism’s texts. Some, I wrestle with. The vast majority I treasure.

Jewish Law and Standards on Gay Relationships

Terrific article about gay and lesbian Orthodox youth (“Can Gay and Lesbian Teens Find a Home in Orthodoxy?” May 19). 

One point requires clarification: The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) in its 2006 teshuvah voted to prohibit only anal sex, not all forms of same-gender sexual expression. It is important to realize that the authors felt they needed to do this to produce a more welcoming attitude toward gays and lesbians in the movement. Still, I don’t think most people look to CJLS for what forms of sexuality happen in their relationships.

Rabbi David Novak
Manchester Center, Vt.

The Politics of Health Care

In “#IamAPreexistingCondition” (May 12), Michelle K. Wolf laments that Jimmy Kimmel’s emotional story about his infant son’s medical treatment did not dissuade even three GOP representatives from voting for the American Health Care Act (AHCA). I hear her asking: How can they turn their backs on sick babies!? It’s easy to suggest heartlessness, but let’s take a closer look.

Health insurance works only when the healthy overpay for their care. Their overpayment heals the sick who can’t afford their treatment. Unfortunately, millions of healthy people prefer saving money and letting ill patients or taxpayers cover expensive medical treatment. (Should we ask how this group turns their backs on sick babies?)

Democrats and Republicans know this but use different approaches to get healthy people to buy insurance. In the Affordable Care Act (ACA), Democrats provide for hefty subsidies and the individual mandate to encourage and force healthy people into the system. 

The GOP approach charges more when people develop ongoing medical conditions while uninsured. Only uninsured folks can be charged a “pre-existing” rate. Jimmy Kimmel’s son isn’t one of them. He was insured at birth and will likely stay insured and pay regular rates his entire lifetime.

History shows that Democratic and Republican approaches are flawed. Despite billions spent on subsidies and the weight of legal force, many healthy people stayed out under the Democratic ACA, and the system is contracting. And from experience, we know that despite the specter of financial ruin faced by those who choose to be uninsured under the Republican AHCA, many healthy people won’t join health insurance.   

I believe one’s stance isn’t a matter of one side helping sick children and another possessed of sickening indifference. These positions reflect different philosophies about getting people to make personal sacrifices for the good of society.

Jeff Feuer
Beverly Hills