Category Archives: Haaretz Rabbis’ Round Table

Transgender Bathrooms are a Human Rights Struggle – and a Jewish Imperative

This article was originally published on May 22, 2016 by Haaretz. The full article can be found on their website here.

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As Jews our responsibility is to embrace the gender identity of each individual not only in our communities but in society at large. That means repealing transphobic legislation like North Carolina’s HB2.

North Carolina’s controversial “Bathroom Law”, which stipulates that in government buildings, individuals may only use the restroom that corresponds to the gender on their birth certificates, continues to make headlines. Proponents of the law, known officially as HB2 “The Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act,” claim that it is about safety, preventing men from “claiming to be transgender” just so that they can enter a women’s bathroom and invade their privacy. But over 200 local, state, and national organizations that work with assault victims claim that there is nothing to support the fears of these lawmakers. And none of the 18 states that have nondiscrimination laws that protect transgender rights has seen an increase in public safety issues because of these laws.

HB2The fight over the law hit a tipping point when the Department of Justice determined that HB2 violates the Federal Civil Rights Act and gave North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory an ultimatum to ensure that the state would not comply with the law. North Carolina didn’t budge, and instead sued the government. The Justice Department responded with a lawsuit of their own, with Attorney General Loretta Lynch describing the battle over this law as the civil rights struggle of this era.

But the fight over HB2 is more than a civil rights struggle; it’s a human rights struggle. And as Jews, we have a particular imperative to treat it as such.

As Jews, we have an obligation to see each individual as made in God’s image. Each individual is unique and created differently. We are not God, and therefore, it is not for us to put parameters on the divine nature or image of another person. Rather, we should honor each individual as divine, regardless of one’s gender identity. Even the rabbis of the Talmud understood that we do not live in a gender binary system. We find six different gender identities in the Talmud. This Talmudic precedent suggests that we should not only acknowledge one’s gender identity, but also celebrate it.

Some Jewish institutions are starting to implement policies in line with this thinking. Last year, the Union for Reform Judaism passed a resolution that “affirms the right[s] of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals” and “urges the adoption and implementation of legislation and policies that prevent discrimination based on gender identity and expression.” Similarly, the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly is in the process of voting on a resolution that affirms its commitment to fully welcoming, accepting and including people of all gender identities in Jewish life and general society. These statements understand our commitment as Jews to honor each individual. Last June, I wrote that ensuring that all can use the bathroom in our institutions “is as integral to the sacred nature of the building as is creating a transcendent prayer space.”

These statements reflect an understanding of the importance of making sure that our sacred communities and sacred spaces are welcoming of everyone. But our obligation as Jews to embrace the gender identity of each individual does not end with our institutional buildings and programs. We have an obligation as Jews to build a society that is just as inclusive and accepting as the communities we set out to create.

Judaism teaches that pikuach nefesh, saving a life, supersedes everything else in Jewish law. A study by the Williams Institute think tank shows that 41 percent of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals have attempted suicide. This number is substantially greater than the overall suicide rate of 4.6 percent in the United States. The way society has treated transgender individuals makes them feel as if there is no place for them in this world. Denying them the basic human right of going to the bathroom, as North Carolina has attempted to do, only reinforces this feeling.

But embracing all and creating inclusive communities can have the opposite effect. A recent study out of the University of Washington suggests that transgender youth that are supported and accepted by family, friends, teachers, clergy, and society as a whole are no more anxious or depressed than other children their age.

HB2 supporters claim the law will keep individuals safe from bathroom predators. But this law doesn’t ensure anyone’s safety. Instead, it puts lives in danger. It endangers the lives of people in the transgender community by further denying them basic human rights, by suggesting that they don’t really exist, and by closing them off from society. If our responsibility as Jews is to do what we can to save every life, then we have an obligation to repeal HB2 and similar harmful and discriminatory legislation in other states.

We learn in Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 that whoever saves a life, saves an entire world, but also that whoever destroys a life, destroys an entire world. We, as Jews, have an obligation to save lives and save worlds. May 17 was the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. May we make a commitment every day to stopping all transphobic legislation that destroys far too many worlds.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Star Wars and Jewish Thought Have Same Take on Good Versus Evil

This article was originally published on December 18, 2015 by Haaretz. The full article can be found on their website here.

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Star Wars has always been about more than just galactic war, aliens, and planet traveling. It is about the fight of good versus evil. How one uses the Force is equivalent to the rabbinic tradition’s ‘yetzer tov’ and ‘yetzer rah.’

HaaretzStarWarsPicMost sci-fi enthusiasts say the most pivotal moment in the iconic Star Wars franchise took place in The Empire Strikes Back when the evil Darth Vader reveals to the young Jedi Knight Luke Skywalker that he is in fact his father. They use this argument to support their claim that Episode V is the best film in the series.

While that may be true, the most important moment for me is the end of Return of the Jedi when Vader prevents the evil Darth Sidious, Emperor Palpatine, from killing his son Luke. At that moment, Vader abandons his commitment to the Dark Side and his status as a Sith Lord, and instead uses the Force for good. He even has his son remove his mask, killing him in the process.

Star Wars has always been about more than just galactic war, aliens, and planet traveling. It is about the fight of good versus evil. The Force within the Star Wars universe represents the talent and ability inside each of us to be good and do good. The Force is each individual’s opportunity and responsibility to stand up for good. The Light Side and the Dark Side, the result of how one uses the Force, is equivalent to the rabbinic tradition’s yetzer tov and yetzer rah, one’s good inclination and one’s evil inclination.

The yetzer rah that haunts us, and leads us down a dark path, is not what we think. We tend to look at those who do wrong as selfish, only thinking about themselves. Similarly, when we look at Anakin Skywalker embracing the Dark Side, we think that jealousy and ego led him to turn evil. Yet, there is a selflessness to that selfishness. Anakin turns to the Dark Side because Palpatine promises that doing so will give him the power to save his wife, Padmé. Midrash teaches that a similar drive pushes someone to do wrong (Genesis Rabbah 9:7). We desire safety, security, health – for ourselves, but also for others. We do not want to accept that some things are out of our control. Trying to control what we cannot control ultimately leads us down the path of wrongdoing. There is not a Sith Lord pushing us to do evil. There is only ourselves and our own desires.

One may think that we begin in a pure state and that our relationship with others and the manner in which we are influenced by society makes us impure. Rabbinic Judaism offers the opposite perspective. Rabbinic tradition teaches that one is born solely with the yetzer rah and only acquires the yetzer tov at age 13 (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 16). That is why one does not become bar mitzvah, and does not become obligated or responsible until that age. If Judaism teaches that we begin with a state of wrongdoing and only learn to do good, then the yetzer tov is not only equivalent to the Force being used for good. It is also symbolic of the hope that is present throughout the films. The first Star Wars film, Episode IV, is even called A New Hope.

That hope is what drives the Jewish people. In fact, that eternal hope is the gift of Judaism. The hope that good will defeat evil, both in this world and within ourselves, is the hope we sing about in the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah. That hope is found in the scriptural narrative of our people, the exodus experience following 400 years of slavery and servitude. That hope is prominent in Psalms, as the Psalmist promises “weeping may endure for an evening, but joy comes in the morning” (Ps. 30:5).

Similarly, Star Wars embodies hope for a better future. We can easily become disheartened by reading headlines and watching the news. We see evil in the world around us and fear the dark direction that society is heading in. We hear xenophobic and bigoted statements from community leaders and politicians and fear that our society, which prides itself on freedom and democracy, is becoming the evil empire.

Yet, Star Wars is a call to action. It turned a moisture farmer on the forgotten desert planet of Tattoine into a Jedi Knight. It turned the self-centered Han Solo into a hero that cared about others and not just about himself. Yet it demands we drive that change toward a better future by ensuring the yetzer tov within each us, and within society, prevails.

May the Force be with you.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Would You Sleep Well in a Hotel Bed Made by an Underpaid Maid?

This article was originally published on September 1, 2014, Labor Day, by Haaretz. The full article can be found on their website here.

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The Torah has much to teach us about Labor Day.

For many in the United States, and especially the northeastern part, Labor Day is the official end of summer. If schools are not yet back in session, the school year begins after Labor Day. The last three-day weekend for quite a while, Labor Day is also the end of the “pool season” for communities that don’t have warm climates for most of the year. For most, Labor Day represents the finale of their vacation, one last attempt to get the most out of a summer that went by way too fast.

For others, it is a day for celebrating justice.

The day, thanks to the support and influence of labor unions, emphasizes the economic and societal achievements of labor workers. By marking this day, we celebrate the achievements of American workers who contribute to our society.

This year, Labor Day comes two days after Jews read the beginning of Parashat Shoftim, the Torah Portion of Shoftim:

“Justice, Justice, You Shall Pursue” (Deut. 16:20).

Shoftim reminds us that, unfortunately, justice does not come naturally; it is an ideal that we must work for. We are commanded to not simply love justice, to not simply believe in justice, but, rather, to pursue justice.

When we Jews consider Labor Day in the context of Shoftim, we understand that it is about more than just a celebration of hard work. It is about fighting to ensure that all those who work hard get their fair share. Labor Day becomes not just a celebration, but a reminder that the fight for justice and equality in the workforce is ongoing.

Deuteronomy 16:20 continues, clarifying that we are to pursue justice so that we can not only dwell in our land, but also thrive in our land. Without justice, without each worker getting their fair share, we cannot truly thrive as individuals, as a people and as a nation.

The legalized formation of labor unions with the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 was a large step toward justice and equality, fighting for the success that these workers deserve for their hard work. This law mirrors our faith’s collective imperative to pursue justice, but there is still much work to be done in our pursuit of justice for all.

Even with the influence of unions, Congress has failed to act in increasing the minimum wage, in ensuring that those workers who do in fact work hard get their fair share. The current federal minimum wage in America is only $7.25. A dual-income family where both individuals are earning only the minimum wage has a household income right around America’spoverty level. Clearly, the minimum wage is far from a living wage.

In light of Congress’ failure to act, cities and states across the United States have begun passing legislation of their own. Los Angeles, Seattle and San Francisco have been pushing wage increases between $13 and $15 an hour, while states like Minnesota, Maryland and Massachusetts have increased the minimum wage, albeit more modestly. Just like these states and cities stepped up and acted when the nation’s legislators refused to do so, the Jewish community, inspired by the teachings of the Torah, must exert pressure on our nation’s leaders to ensure that all hard working individuals get their fair share.

hotelbedWe cannot, in good conscience, be comfortable knowing that those who take care of us in hotels and hospitals, restaurants and retailers, live in poverty. We cannot allow them to work hard and not make a living wage, just to keep prices lower for us, the consumer. We cannot sit at the pool and celebrate Labor Day when those who serve us poolside are not getting their fair share. We must pursue justice. We must ensure that the minimum wage in America is a living wage.

As the United States’ Department of Labor points out:

“The vital force of labor added materially to the highest standard of living and the greatest production the world has ever known … It is appropriate, therefore, that the nation pay tribute on Labor Day to the creator of so much of the nation’s strength, freedom, and leadership – the American worker.”

We celebrate the worker because it is hard work that leads to freedom, justice and equality. The essence of the American promise, as well as the promise of democracies throughout the world, is that everyone has a fair shot. In a land of equal opportunity, if you work hard, you can succeed. It is up to us, to ensure that success for all.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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