Judaism and the Disenfranchised

Judaism and the Disenfranchised

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This blog is part of a series on World Religions. I teach an Introduction to World Religions class at Salve Regina University, in Newport, Rhode Island, as well as at Oceans of Grace Outreach Center at my church, First Lutheran Church of East Greenwich, RI. The classes at the church are free, and open to all. (For more info go to http://www.firstlutheraneg.org). Because World Religions is such a vast topic, I am approaching it through a particular lens: the anawim. “Anawim” is a Hebrew word which means literally “the little ones, who cry out to God for justice.” In other words, the disenfranchised, the ones who have no voice. In our world today, I define “anawim” as “the poor, women, who sadly, are still disenfranchised in many parts of the world, and LBGTQ persons. I am approaching the world’s major religions pretty much chronologically. My last blog focused on the Hindu philosophy, considered the oldest living religion in the world, and how it treats the anawim (the poor, women, and LBGTQ persons). Today’s blog focuses on Judaism, and its attitude toward the poor, women, and LBGTQ persons.

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Judaism’s roots began approximately 4000 years ago in the Middle East. Many Christians forget that Jesus was Jewish, and that to understand our Christian faith, it is important to understand the Jewish faith, from which we come. Judiasm is considered the first of the three great monotheistic religions (the other two being Christianity and Islam). In addition, it is also the first three of the great Abrahamic faiths. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all hail Abraham and Sarah as the “Father and Mother” of our faiths. The Torah, which literally means “teaching” or “instruction,” refers strictly to the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (also called by their Greek name, the Penteteuch: namely, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), but by others refers to the whole body of teaching of Jewish scriptures and instruction. Jews also refer to the entire Hebrew Bible (called the Old Testament by Christians) as the Tanak, a kind of acronym standing for Torah, Neviium (prophets) and Ketuviim (writings).

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Judaism is passionately concerned about the poor. Repeatedly it urges us to care for “orphans and widows,” the anawim of biblical times. Beginning with the ten commandments, one of the oldest parts of the Hebrew Bible, Judaism commands us not to steal and not to covet anything that is our neighbor’s. As the Torah expands the ten commandments into 613 laws, many of them also protect the poor. My friend and colleague, Rabbi Ben Lefkowitz, who came in as a guest speaker for my class at Salve, focused on some of the specific laws in the Torah which protect the poor. He noted “Thou shall not hold onto the wages of a laborer until morning,” meaning you shall pay a worker each day for their labor. He also pointed out that the Torah commands land owners are to pick their crops in such a way that they leave the corners of their fields and the gleanings (those crops which fall to the ground during harvesting) for the poor, so they can come and glean the fields for food. The Torah also commands us not to practice usury (charging interest). Today’s credit card companies and pay day lenders are therefore condemned by Torah!

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The greatest emphasis on the poor, however, is found in the Prophets. All of the biblical prophets speak powerfully on behalf of the poor. Amos, for whom the soup kitchen and shelter in Providence is named, is representative of the biblical prophets when he proclaims:

“…Because you trample on the poor and take from the levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins – you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate…I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them…But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5: 11-12; 21, 24)

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In terms of how women are treated within Judaism, that all depends on the branch of Judaism. In fact, a recurring theme that is quickly emerging in our study of word religions is this: the literalist branch of every religion (by that I mean those who interpret the sacred texts literally, understanding it as dictated by God and therefore inerrant) are the branches of each religion which are oppressive to women and LBGTQ persons, whereas the branches of each tradition which interpret the texts as shaped and formed by the social and cultural values of their historical context, which change and in fact need to change to meet the challenges of each stage of history, are the ones which advocate for the equality of women and LBGTQ persons.
We must remember that the Bible reflects a Middle Eastern culture which is thousands of years old. We see on the news how women are often treated in Middle Eastern cultures today, and need to remember that the Bible is from this same culture, thousands of years ago. Women were property. They had no value or rights, except through their relationship with a man (father, or husband). Today, therefore, women do not have equality within the Orthodox branch of Judaism, but do have a great deal more equality within the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist branches of Judaism.

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In terms of how Judaism treats persons of LBGTQ orientations, the same rule applies. So today, persons of LBGTQ orientations would have a difficult time finding acceptance within the Orthodox tradition, but would receive equal treatment within the Reform and Reconstructionist branches, and even within the Conservative branch of Judaism.

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Being a passionate “equalist,” feeling that all persons, female and male, LBGTQ and straight, are created in God’s own image and likeness, and should by virtue of that alone be treated with complete equality, I pray that his day, we see the Holy One in all we encounter,
and reflect the Holy One to all we encounter.

Linda Forsberg, Copyright October 7, 2015

Photo Credits:  McAuley Hall, Salve Regina University, Newport, RI; Stone marker in garden at Salve Regina University, with quote from Catherine McAuley, foundress of the Sisters of Mercy; Rabbi Ben with Torah scroll and students; crops at Harvest time, farm at ghost Ranch, Abiqui, NM; Multnomah Falls, OR; representatives of ELCA and Lutheran World Relief, at the UN’s 57th Commission on the Status of Women, NYC; Chung Hyun Kyung, Pprofessor of Systematic Theology at Ewha Women’s University, Seoul, Korea, and of Asian Women’s Theology at Union Theological Seminary, NYC, who endorsed the term created by my friend and colleague, Stephanie Smith and I, “Equalist,” to describe those who believe in the full equality of ALL (rather than say feminist, anti-racist, anti ageist, against prejudice toward LBGTQ persons, etc.  “Equalist” says it all in one simple word!)

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