An Anti-Social Orthodox Jewry

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This week, the RCA, OU, NCYI, Agudah, and a few other organizations claiming to represent North American Orthodox Jews issued a short statement on Same Sex Marriage:

On the issue of legalizing same-sex marriage, the Orthodox Jewish world speaks with one voice, loud and clear: We oppose the redefinition of the bedrock relationship of the human family. The Torah, which forbids homosexual activity, sanctions only the union of a man and a woman in matrimony. While we do not seek to impose our religious principles on others, we believe the institution of marriage is central to the formation of a healthy society and the raising of children. It is our sincere conviction that discarding the historical definition of marriage would be detrimental to society. Moreover, we are deeply concerned that, should any such redefinition occur, members of traditional communities like ours will incur moral opprobrium and may risk legal sanction if they refuse to transgress their beliefs. That prospect is chilling, and should be unacceptable to all people of good will on both sides of this debate. The integrity of marriage in its traditional form must be preserved.

  • AGUDATH ISRAEL OF AMERICA
  • CENTRAL RABBINICAL CONGRESS OF THE U.S.A. AND CANADA
  • NATIONAL COUNCIL OF YOUNG ISRAEL
  • RABBINICAL ALLIANCE OF AMERICA
  • RABBINICAL COUNCIL OF AMERICA
  • UNION OF ORTHODOX JEWISH CONGREGATIONS OF AMERICA

Of all the things I disagree with this statement on, one line stands out as particularly¬†egregious: “It is our sincere conviction that discarding the historical definition of marriage would be detrimental to society.” Really? The Rabbis aren’t trying to impose Jewish values on a secular society – they are simply concerned for the perpetuity of that secular society.

Is anyone else puzzled by a group of Orthodox Rabbis making suggestions for what would help maintain a healthy American secular society?

Halacha was designed to keep Jews separate from the larger society. There are numerous laws developed over the ages to prevent Jews from intermingling with non-Jews. We have to eat special food, participate in communal prayers multiple times each day, and separate ourselves for Shabbat and holidays. It goes so far that if a non-Jew (even a heterosexual one!) pours a a glass of kosher non-mevushal wine, we cannot drink it! Many wear special clothing, live in clustered neighborhoods, and send our children to exclusive schools.

If there is anything that is antithetical to American society, it should be Orthodox Judaism.

But of course that’s not true. America is a country where people are respected regardless of their differences. A country where we tolerate people who look different, act different, believe differently and were born different. Diversity is what makes this country so amazing, and what strengthens our social fabric.

If these six organizations want to oppose Same-Sex Marriage, they have that right. But they should not hide behind a false excuse. Admit that the motivation is religious, and be prepared for the repercussions of pushing a religious agenda in a secular arena.

And for the record, if these organizations cared about “the formation of a healthy society and the raising of children,” then maybe they would be advocating for the tens of thousands of orphaned children waiting for adoption in states that deny gays and lesbians (both single and coupled) from adopting. Florida alone has 19,000 kids in their foster system, but does not allow gay couples or singles to adopt.

Can someone explain to those children in Florida foster homes that the OU is looking out for their best interests by denying homosexuals equal rights?

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Torah View on Homosexuality

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“Va’Yivra Elohim et ha’Adam b’Tzalmo, b’Tzelem Elohim bara oto… – And God created Adam in God’s image, in the image of God created him…” (Breishit 2:27)

“Lo tikom, v’lo titor et bnei amecha, v’ahavta l’rei’echa kamocha, ani hashem – You shall not take vengeance, or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself: I am the Lord.” (Vayikra 18:19)

These verses prohibit the most immoral form of behavior known to mankind: the treatment of some people by other people as inferior, second-class, or having fewer rights within the community. This manifests itself in people being ridiculed, discriminated against, excommunicated, and ostracized in their own communities.

The verses above command us to recognize that God created every person in a godly image. We are each unique and special, but what makes us different should be celebrated, not criticized.

When the issue of homosexuals in the Jewish community is raised, many people quickly point to Lev. 18:22 as an easy way to solve the ‘problem’: “personae non gratae, the Torah says that if you cannot change you are an abomination.” The common error people make (aside from a questionably Jewish translation of the word toeva) is to consider homosexuals themselves as being spoken against by the Torah.

The Torah speaks about acts, not people. And many of the acts that the Torah describes¬† are what we call bein adam l’makom – between people and God.

I cannot imagine the theological struggle a homosexual Orthodox Jew has when they read that verse in the Torah. That is a personal struggle they must each go through, and address in their own way. They may seek a Rabbi’s advice, they may see a psychiatrist for counseling, or they may find comfort in the supportive company of friends and family.

What is of supreme importance is guaranteeing the acceptance and welcoming of homosexual Jews in the Orthodox community. Like any other person who is not living a life in complete observance or compliance with every law in the Torah, we do not demand secrecy and denial in the community.

If we demand that homosexuals in the Orthodox community remain closeted to all but their rabbi, we are asking for a a host of terrible consequences. At best there will be very awkward conversations about dating. At worst we have cases of depression, broken and dishonest marriages, suicidal thoughts and suicidal actions rachmanah litzlan.

We need to create a safe environment for homosexual Jewish in the Orthodox community. This is an unquestionable case of pikuach nefesh.

It is unclear what has caused so many people in our community to not see this reality. Some have suggested that homophobia is rampant in our community, but I have to believe that these are well-intentioned people. Perhaps living in America has led to excessive influence from Right-Wing Christian groups that believe homosexuality is an illness in need of a cure. It is not their fault for being corrupted, but it is our challenge to shed the light on this misconception.

It is not going to be simple, but we must make every effort possible to create an LGBT-safe Jewish community. We will face much opposition on this front, and may be called many disparaging and hateful names. We need to remember the Torah commandment of kol Yisrael Arevim ze ba’ze – all of Israel is bound to one another. We cannot sit by idly while our brothers and sisters are attacked and ostracized.

Through all of this, we must be honest with ourselves, and with Hakadosh Baruch Hu, regardless of communal pressure, considerations or consequences.

An Open letter:

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Update 3/13/2011: I was instructed by my previous employer that I could not remain an employee of the University if I did not remove this post. I have restored the post below along with the message I wrote when it was taken down.

 

I owe anyone who reads this blog an apology. it is with extreme humiliation that I removed the text of this post a few minutes ago.

my opinions have not changed. I am sorry.

Update: Reinstated letter.

President Joel,

I want to share with you my support for the event Tuesday night, and the pride I felt in being associated with Yeshiva University that night.

One of my close friends was on the panel, and I experienced the depression he lived through without understanding its cause. I had suspected for a while he might be gay, but I was not sure of anything. In the last year I became much closer to him, and he shared with me what he went through and what life was like now. While he still struggles with halacha and how it relates to his sexuality, his depression disappeared when he came out to his friends, and realized that nobody cared. He didn’t need a Rabbi to tell him whether sex with another man was assur or not – he needed his friends to continue being his friend after they knew about his sexuality.

I know you have received a lot of flak for allowing the event to take place, but I think you know the importance of having a publicized and open program about being homosexual in the Orthodox community. There are many closeted homosexuals on campus and in other places throughout the Orthodox community, and YU took a bold stand by saying “there are safe places for you to be open about who you are.” If you saw the movie “Trembling Before God” you may know that the people who were part of the silhouetted dancing in the beginning and end of the film were people who did not feel comfortable coming out when the video was made. This event allowed people to realize that they don’t need to hide in the Modern Orthodox community.

I know that you are in a very tough situation, and I know that you have a very difficult balancing act to make it through this as President of the University. I just wanted to tell you that I support you in allowing events like this to take place, Adina supports this as well, and most of our friends and peers are in favor of events like this.

There may be many donors and board members who are not in favor of something like this happen, but the next generation of lay-leaders and financial supporters recognize that homosexuality should not be taboo, and should not be something the Orthodox community sweeps under the rug and hopes just goes away.

Thank you,

Aaron Steinberg

The Jewish “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

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A friend recently sent me links to a newspaper article and a blog post about the need for greater acceptance and welcoming to homosexual Orthodox Jews within the Modern Orthodox community.

Rabbi Hyim Shafner wrote on Morethodoxy about the distinction between halachot that are moral, and halachot that are simply rules. We generally would not consider someone who doesn’t keep Kosher a bad person – they are simply a sinful person.

We need not worry that welcoming homosexual Jews into our community means we have no moral compass and tomorrow we will welcome adults who commit sexual acts with children (which is not actually one of the sexual sins in the torah) or brothers and sisters who want to marry.

An article published in the YU Commentator anonymously made three specific and reasonable requests from the Yeshiva University community:

  1. For the Rabbis to “recognize our existence, and to take a proactive role in organizing open discussion of the issue of homosexuality.”
  2. Break the taboo of homosexuality by cultivating an “atmosphere of acceptance and open discussion.”
  3. To form a Gay-Straight Alliance on campus to promote an environment that will be comfortable and accepting of gay students.

It’s been too long that homosexuality remains a taboo only within the Orthodox community. We need to stop denying the reality of a significant minority of our community, and strive to be accepting and open to these Jews.

The gay Jew is not living an immoral life. We as a community need to openly discuss how to find an understanding of the Torah’s attitude on homosexual intercourse, but the welcoming of openly gay individuals should not be delayed until that is achieved.

We need to make our synagogues and schools safe places for gay Jews to associate themselves, and exercise the beautiful values of community, unity and togetherness that we have otherwise valued so greatly.

Read Rabbi Shafner’s article here: Is the Torah Moral?

Read the Commentator article here: The Gay Question