Be fruitful and multiply

I, for one, feel less and less connected with the harsh strictures of religion in this too-Holy Land, with its laws that seem ever more stringent.

A baby playing (illustrative) (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
A baby playing (illustrative)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
A few weeks ago my class of ’74 got together on Kibbutz Ketura in the south of Israel for a long planned 40th reunion… exactly one year late.
The delay suited our laid-back attitude to life. Port Elizabeth, our small city by the South African sea, was like a kibbutz itself. We knew each other’s parents and siblings and pets. We all swam in each other’s pools, and watched movies in each other’s playrooms, and went to camp together during the holidays. A quarter of us live in Israel; many more have lived here over the years.
It was a weekend of pure joy and nonstop highlights, but among the wonderful meals and Red Sea cruises and that adolescent giggling that we all seamlessly slipped back into, our Shabbat service was a mixed delight for me.
None of my friends at Theodor Herzl Jewish Day School were religious; only a tiny minority of the community kept Shabbat or even kashrut. Yet we all davened Shaharit before class each morning, and took out the Torah twice a week. Often we went to shul on Friday nights, too, and Saturday mornings, before we drove to the beach, or to drama lessons. The prayers and the melodies are a part of us; they are part of why we chose to live in a Jewish state.
Older but no wiser now, we belted out the songs on Friday night with joy, despite our wrinkles and issues with our backs; we took three steps backward as we started and finished the Amida prayer, and we bent our (less flexible these days) knees and bowed at the requisite spots. We covered the glasses over our eyes as we incanted “Hear O Israel…” and, for a moment, we were back in a place where prayer was so simple, and so part of us, and so right.
Here in Israel my classmates hardly go to shul. I, for one, feel less and less connected with the harsh strictures of religion in this too-Holy Land, with its laws that seem ever more stringent.
But it’s not the zealousness of the ultra- Orthodox who turn us away from our heritage; let people wait 10 hours between meat and milk if they like, let them not speak on their cellphones for three days if it does them good, and cover their heads and their foreheads and their knees. What we object to is when they hijack our religion and say that our way is not proper, not acceptable, not Jewish enough.
OK, you might argue, diving into the waves after Shabbat davening might not be the best way to honor our traditions.
But what about halachically Orthodox rabbis? Are they good enough in the Jewish state? It would appear not.
Here’s another of those oh no, no, no stories – and why, oh why, do we stand for them? Another graduate of our school, who was also moved to live in the Jewish homeland, joined the army here and almost put a bullet through his head.
Constantly surrounded by young men, this particular soldier finally faced the fact that he was gay; believing this entailed abrogating a family life and children, he felt that life was not worth living.
Fortunately, the story has a happy ending: he didn’t kill himself, did find love and a partner to marry, and a few years down the line they decided to have a child.
“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” is a biblical injunction from the very first chapter of Genesis. God didn’t go into particulars in verse 28; what happens if you are sterile, have cancer, are a two-daddy home? The Jewish state addresses those questions.
We have one of the most supportive IVF systems in the world. Jews hold life in great esteem; the government pays for people to try over and over again to have more babies. Unless you are gay.
Homosexual couples cannot apply for surrogacy parenting here; it needs to be done thousands of miles away.
The specific couple I know arranged for an egg from the Ukraine to be flown to Nepal, where an Indian woman was inseminated hours before the earthquake that destroyed her hospital ward. Sent back to India, she was almost not allowed to return to Nepal to deliver the baby – and that is only part of the drama.
The miracle child was finally born into the dust and dirty water of Kathmandu, and a bunch of bureaucratic balagans later the ecstatic (though heavily in debt) family flew home to Tel Aviv.
The baby, named for his great-grandfather who fled pogroms in Lithuania a century ago for the freedom of South Africa, was finally in his own crib, ready for his covenant with God.
But there was a problem with the brit, and the chopped herring and kichel were put on hold. First the child needed to be converted; a very simple procedure if you’re under 12 and a girl, or 13 and male. A dunk in the mikve and you’re one of the tribe… but not if your parents are gay.
The good news is that today in Israel halachically ordained totally Orthodox rabbis are prepared to convert these babies, just as they are prepared to convert and marry Russian Israelis, say, who were welcomed into Israel with open arms, fought in the army, paid their taxes… and then were not allowed to get married under a huppa.
Today there are forward-thinking, open-minded Orthodox rabbis who are happy to present a more embracing, more inclusive face of Judaism and welcome these brides and grooms and babies into our fold.
But they can be imprisoned for it.
Honestly, they can: for breaking this law they can land up in jail.
And even if the law turns a blind eye to the sins of the rabbis, the marriages they perform, and the babies they convert, are not recognized in the Jewish state, where the Chief Rabbinate has full say on all our life events.
This little boy is about to be converted in the Reform synagogue in Tel Aviv; he will not be recognized as Jewish in Israel. When he grows up and gets married, he’ll join the hundreds of couples who have to go to Cyprus to get remarried after “renegade” Orthodox rabbis marry them here, or live in Israel without being recognized as wed. His daddies spent hundreds of thousands of shekels abroad, money they earned in Israel and could have spent here instead.
They are both Jewish, have both done the army, both are contributing, taxpaying members of society.
We outnumber by far the zealots who dictate these laws, and who, for the most part, do not go to the army or send their children to work. In the previous government courageous members of Knesset from Yesh Atid and other parties worked to overturn some of the harsher religious laws; we voted them out. All the hardearned advances were repealed.
What is wrong with us? Why do we allow this craziness to continue? It’s something to ponder over this week’s cholent.
Shabbat shalom to us all.
The writer lectures at Beit Berl and the IDC.