What Would Hillel Say?
Once upon a time, Jews who found Judaism cumbersome simply declared the Torah obsolete and went about their lives as they pleased. They weren’t inclined to intellectual contortions.
Some “progressive” Jews today, though, choose instead to twist and torture the Jewish canon, in an attempt to force it to “yield” what they wish it actually did. In a way, their reluctance to just jettison the Torah and Talmud is admirable. Other words, though, come to mind for their merciless manipulation of the Jewish religious tradition.
A recent example of such intellectual anarchism is Hillel. The campus organization, that is, not the Talmudic sage who, while he was an exemplar of equanimity and tolerance, had harsh words for Jews who arrogate to “exploit the crown” – i.e. misuse the Torah for personal purposes (Avot, 1:13).
“Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life” maintains a presence at more than 500 campuses throughout the United States and Canada and aims to “inspire every Jewish student to make an enduring commitment to Jewish life.”
If that final phrase read “contemporary mores,” a recent Hillel publication entitled “LGBTQ Resource Guide” might make sense. It is intended, after all, in its own words, to make “all Jewish students, of all sexual orientations and gender identities” feel comfortable with their choice of lifestyle. But the term “Jewish life” is simply not sufficiently expansive to include behavior that has been unarguably condemned by Jewish sources throughout the ages.
The publication itself is in equal parts self-righteous and silly. Among its offering of “Selected Jewish Texts Useful for Creating Queer Jewish Ritual” are fun-house mirror versions of Biblical laws and narratives, all imaginatively engineered to erase disapproval of certain behaviors and to imply that great Jewish personages lived in, or emerged from, various closets. Wearing its ignorance brightly on its sleeve, the “Resource Guide” risibly mangles its references. It mistransliterates words (like “v’nigeid” for “v’nigein”) and invents others from whole cloth (“to’arish”). At one point, it identifies Chira, Judah’s father-in-law, as his wife.
The clumsy attempts at Biblical revisionism are bad enough. Even more disturbing is the propagandists’ next step: demonizing those who dare to uphold authentically Jewish values.
To that end, they refer to “religious conservatives” – presumably those who take Leviticus 18:22 and centuries of oral Jewish tradition seriously – as “purveyors of hate”; and offer up new liturgy, like a refurbished “Al Hanissim” (“On The Miracles”) prayer. The original Al Hanissim is recited on the Jewish holidays of Purim and Chanukah – the latter, as it happens, commemorates the refusal of Jews to capitulate to the mores of the dominant culture. The “LGBTQ Resource Guide” version of the prayer celebrates instead the “dignity and justice” due “lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people.” And it goes on to deride those who “hate us in the name of [G-d]” and “rose up to victimize us, pathologize us, brutalize us, and erase us.”
The prayer-parody then thanks the Creator for having “fought alongside us, vindicated us,” and “[given] us the courage to stand together… the strength… to be who we are and to love whom we love…”
Jews committed to Jewish tradition (the original, not the “new-and-improved” version) do not hate those who violate the Torah out of carnal desire. And they certainly don’t “pathologize” or brutalize them. On the contrary, countless men and women challenged by predispositions to behavior condemned by the Torah have approached Orthodox rabbis and been treated with great concern and assisted in facing up to their special challenges. But no, we do not kowtow to the Zeitgeist, nor are we intimidated by its proponents. We do not apologize for our embrace of Judaism’s eternal truths.
That a major Jewish organization – one pledged, no less, to “inspire” Jewish students “to make an enduring commitment to Jewish life” – has chosen to vilify us, and to glorify what the Torah considers sinful, should deeply disturb all Jews who care about Judaism – and should make us think.
During the years my family and I were privileged to live in Providence, Rhode Island, I happily gave of my time to the Brown University Hillel. The local Hillel provided services (prayer and otherwise) to a broad variety of Jewish students from Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design.
The classes I was privileged to teach attracted young people from Orthodox and non-Orthodox backgrounds – and interacting with them all was a wonderful experience. The Reform rabbi who served as the Hillel House director was always friendly and grateful for my participation. To the best of my knowledge, he never spoke disparagingly of Orthodoxy. If he considered my belief in the truth of the Torah and the sacrosanctity of its laws to be objectionable, he certainly never voiced his feeling; Hillel, after all, was about providing Jewish students with Jewish resources and Jewish learning.
Today, though, it seems that Hillel has changed. By sponsoring and distributing a document that actively celebrates what the Torah considers iniquitous and that demonizes those who stand up for Jewish truths, it has blatantly betrayed its trust.
All Jews who seek to discern G-d’s will from His Torah, not try to impose their own upon it, should let Hillel’s leaders know that the organization has gone too far, that it has insulted the memory and the admonition of the Talmudic sage it claims to revere, the great rabbi whose name it claims as its own.
© 2008 AM ECHAD RESOURCES
[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]