In the pitched battle between progressivism and traditionalism, it falls to a progressive Israeli woman and mother to offer practical solutions that help real people live complete, happy lives
Is a baby born from a traditional union of a man and a woman, both Jewish, properly married by a rabbi under a chuppah any more precious than a baby born to a lesbian couple of mixed faith via in vitro fertilization? That is the question that is asked of us by advocate and expert in legal philosophy Irit Rosenblum, the founder and CEO of the New Family organization. For me, an opponent of gay marriage, this was a tough one. For about a nano-second. Then I visualized holding that baby in my arms, looking into his or her eyes, giving him or her my finger to hold and I knew that as a traditionalist, as a Jew, as a human being, I had to say no. A baby is a precious gift from God regardless of how it came into being. There are no evil babies and there can never be any. Bringing into being new life is what we are put on this Earth to do, because without it there can be no meaning to anything else.
I have not changed my mind. I still oppose gay marriage and it is indeed illegal in Israel. And yet, if two human beings, whoever or whatever they may be, wish to avail themselves of the legal structures that the secular state defines as “marriage”, I can hardly find a reason to object. How can we square this circle, how can we reconcile the ideal of traditional union between a man and a woman and in the case of Israel a Jewish man and a Jewish woman with the fact that there are people who prefer to live and have sexual intercourse with people of the same sex or the fact that some people in Israel are considered Jewish enough to receive citizenship under the Law of Return, but not Jewish enough to be issued a marriage license?
Irit’s answer to this question is the only possible answer: we can do it with compassion and with reason and by treating each case as unique. That’s how. There is no need for new laws, no sweeping declarations are required. Let us look simply at the two human beings right here in front of us, two people who wish to avail themselves of the civil legal framework that was created by the government for the benefit of couples that want to live together and form a family unit. This has nothing to do with Judaism or any other religion. It is a private matter between the two people involved and that is all.
As to the question of who is sufficiently Jewish to receive a marriage license, the nonsense of one arm of the Israeli government, the Absorption Ministry having (and rightly so) very inclusive standards as to who is Jewish, while another branch of the same government, the Chief Rabbinate, having rather exclusive standards, well, that simply has to stop. You cannot be admitted to Israel as a Jew and in fact BECAUSE you are a Jew, only to find out years later when you apply for a marriage license that you are not. Until that nonsense stops, Irit and her organization are here to help. And that is a very good thing.
The religious leadership in Israel, the Sanhedrin of our generation, must rise to the challenge. They must realize that God has acted. That the Polish stetls (Jewish majority towns in Eastern Europe) whose black garb their still wear are long gone, incinerated in the fires of the Holocaust. Today, Jews live in an independent and prosperous country. Where once it was disadvantageous and even dangerous to be Jewish, now it is both safe and prestigious, especially in Israel. Whereas before many Jews chose to stop being Jews, today many people who have tenuous connections to our ethno-religious group are applying for membership. And we should let them in. This is our tradition from Ruth the Moabite more than three millennia ago to the Edomites who were allowed to convert en mass during the first century BC reign of the Judean King Herod, himself of questionable Jewish origins.
Jews were always suspicious of those wishing to join our little tribe and rightly so. But today, there is no mystery as to the motives of those who wish to cast their lots with us; our brand is strong. We are it. Irit is telling me that alas, the religious establishment in Israel cannot see past their diaspora ways, they cannot rise to the historic occasion God has placed in their path. Oh well. Perhaps He does have a highly refined sense of irony, Der Alte (the Old One), as Einstein used to call him. Forget about the old guys from Jerusalem with their black caftans and fur-trimmed hats. It will be a secular, progressive woman from Tel-Aviv who will carry out His work of kibbutz galuiot (gathering of the exiles). It will fall to her to restore to its rightful place the principle of human compassion that one of the greatest sages of antiquity, Hillel placed at the very heart of what it means to be Jewish.
Many, way too many, of Irit’s peers harbor a hatred in their hearts. A hatred for religion, for religious people, and perhaps most of all for the all too easy to hate Israeli religious politicians. I was, I must admit, bracing myself for this hatred in preparing for my talk with Irit. After all, hating on the haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews) is the easiest thing in the world to do and it’s a great form of virtue signaling among Israelis, especially Ashkenazi, secular elites, a group to which Irit belongs and I would as well, had I been still living in Israel. So I mentally clenched my teeth in anticipation, knowing that hating on any Jew is something that would be difficult for me to condone. Instead, all I got from Irit was love and compassion. In fact, I found myself getting angrier at the ultra-Orthodox leaders’ recalcitrance in matters of conversion and family law and their extreme historic myopia than she ever was.
What makes Irit a true legal pioneer and a free thinker is her love of life. Human life that is. This love is a rare commodity indeed in the ranks of progressives, who as she herself has told me, have established a new and strangely Puritan religion; a hard-edged faith, a death cult that worships nothing that is compassionate and everything that is dogmatic, as long as the dogma fits. Like the American Quakers of the 19th century, these progressives choose to remain childless, replenishing their ranks only via new recruits to their strange and inhumane order.
Irit may just be the world’s first practitioner of a form of transcendent traditionalism. A traditionalism that does not cocoon itself in the past, does not eschew modern technologies, does not cringe in fear and batten down the hatches. Hers is a form of traditionalism that asks the question how can modern technologies, especially in the realm of human reproduction be used to make people happy. Truly happy in the one and only way that humans can become truly happy: by becoming parents.
There can be no denying that modernity has made parenthood more challenging than in any other time in human history. Our love of, not to say addiction to, a standard of living that was all but unheard of in our grandparents’ generation and the extraordinary lengths to which we go in order to secure for ourselves this standard of living have been pushing parenthood ever further out on our biological timescale. The same chase after worldly goods often disperses us across the globe, making it harder to find a soulmate. And yet, the technology that gave us our toys also gave us the tools with which parenthood can be reinvented, redefined, revived.
What was needed was an updating of the legal frameworks for parenthood, frameworks that were drawn up long before the first in vitro fertilization took place. This is where Irit and her organization have really made a difference and are making it right now as I write these lines. There can be many objections to unconventional parenthood on many solid grounds; religious, moral, ethical, and even practical. Many are well-justified and need to be thoroughly and carefully addressed. But in the end one thing remains, one question to be asked and answered: is THIS baby, born out of unusual circumstances any less of a divine gift than that one, born the old-fashioned way? Is the world made richer or poorer by this baby’s birth? Is there more or less happiness on this planet because of him or her being on it with the rest of us?
I think I know how Irit would answer these questions and I would not disagree.