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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I’m Coming Out

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Today is National Coming Out Day, and I’m coming out as an LGBT Ally.

In too many communities and sub-communities, cultures and sub-cultures, there is still a strong stigma against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender/transexual individuals. In some places as we have seen recently the result is violence and harassment. In others we can find isolation, exclusion and branding in a way that can and does drive people to depression and suicide. In a modern country like the one we live in, it is inconceivable that sexual identity is the basis for people to be openly discriminated against in the military, business places, houses of worship and private homes.

Unfortunately, I am part of one of those communities where the stigma is strong (nerds: please insert Star Wars reference here.) In the Modern Orthodox community, too many people refer to homosexuality as SSA (Same Sex Attraction) and imply that it is a disease or affliction. In too many congregations, the only homosexual congregants that are accepted with open arms are those seeking therapy in the slim hopes of somehow changing their sexual nature through dangerous practices and highly questionable procedures.

There are not enough Modern Orthodox communities where it is OK for LGBT members to simply live their lives without having to disguise their life partner or spouse as a roommate. Too many MO teens who struggle with their sexual identity because they feel there is no one to talk to if they are gay or lesbian. There are not enough LGBT safe places, and there are not enough straight people standing up and saying that they will not judge, but rather offer an open hand.

So today was designed to accomplish just this goal. National Coming Out Day is an opportunity to give an excuse and some encouragement to people who want to share an important part of who they are with friends and loved ones. But NCOD is also an opportunity and excuse for straight people to share publicly with the people they know that they will not discriminate or ignore someone in their community because of sexual identity, but will rather serve as an ally, friend and partner.

Statistically speaking, most of the people reading this post are not LGB or T. So to all of you out there, tell your coworkers, friends and relatives that you will not stand for hateful or hurtful comments about homosexuals. Talk to your bosses about making your company or organization more gay friendly. Make a commitment to be careful with your speech and not judge people you meet just because they might be a little different. Ask your school or university to create an anti-bullying or anti-harassment policy that explicitly mentions acts that are based on sexual identity. Take today to send a letter to your elected officials asking them to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, or to change the law in your state to recognize same-sex marriage.

And to my readers/friends who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, transexual, queer, questioning, straight, and whatever, I have the following to say: You are my friends and I’m going to treat you all the same. You are all people I care about, and it doesn’t make a difference whether you are gay or straight. It is my mission to do my best with my limited abilities to fight for a more equal community that believes in full human and civil rights for all people.

Consider taking today, or any other day, as an opportunity to stand up for equality.

Feminists and Homosexuals

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I had an amazing time today at my first ever JOFA Conference. For those of you who don’t know, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance has been working to “expand the spiritual, ritual, intellectual and political opportunities for women within the framework of halakha” since 1997. I had the honor to run a program for 27 middle school students encouraging them to listen to their inner voice to help find the right answer for how they should live and act.

The best part of the day, however, was a lunchtime discussion on the inclusion of gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews in the Orthodox community. It was such a great idea to link these connected causes aimed at bringing marginalized Orthodox Jews closer to the center of the Jewish communal structure.

While it was clear that a lot of education and work needs to be done (both to support women like Rabba Sara Hurwitz and to help gays and lesbians to become openly accepted in our synagogues and communities), it was such a good feeling to have a room of over 100 people discussing the joint future of these two groups.

I’m proud to be a heterosexual male who considers himself to be a feminist and a gay activist. JOFA is a great forum for Orthodox men and women to join together under the common cause of Feminism.

What our community needs is a similar forum for straights and gay to come together under a common cause of inclusion and equality in the Orthodox community. It happened today (sort of) for about an hour, but we need something that can be year-round and include thousands of people.

We need a Gay-Straight Alliance for the Orthodox Jewish community as a whole. There’s probably a better name for something like this, but we need a way to spread the message that many people in the Orthodox community want their synagogues to be safe, warm and welcoming places to same-sex families, and homosexual singles. This is the next step towards many more advances down the road.

I’d love to hear in the comments section ideas for how something like this could come to fruition.

(*Note: The comments section is meant for discussion, not hateful speech. I will gladly approve comments of people who disagree with me, but I will delete comments that express hatred towards any group of people. Thank you.)

Be Neither Seen Nor Heard

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I spent the last three days vacationing in Newport, Ri with my wife Adina. One of the major winter attractions are three of the dozen mansions built by late 19th-century millionaires. The Breakers, the Elms and Marble House are estates that would rival anything you could find on MTV’s Cribs, and these were “Summer Cottages” used only 2-3 months per year.
One of the remarkable things about these buildings is the structural and architectural efforts that were taken to keep the servants (at least 30 per home) away from the residents and their guests. In the Breakers, special hallways were created for the servants to refill closets with clean clothing without having to enter the bedrooms themselves. The staff in these homes were meant to be as invisible as humanly possible.
This practice of silencing people continues today. We see it with groups that are deemed unwanted or not important enough to be able to express themselves. This is something that happens in every country, every city and every community. There is always someone trying to keep someone else quiet. Unfortunately, the Jewish community is no different.
The Jewish community has tried to pretend certain things didn’t exist within its confines. Brooklyn Rabbis molest children with little consequence because the community leadership is unwilling to bring in secular authorities. It took many years for domestic abuse cases to be dealt with in the Orthodox community. Today, we have homosexual Orthodox Jews who do not have an entirely safe environment in which to be open and honest about who they are. There has been an effort to keep people from publicly expressing themselves as individuals, and to vilify those who do as activists aimed at bringing down Torah Judaism and its values.
Thankfully, the 21st century is nothing like the 19th century. We don’t have the same limitations in our free society that allowed people to be suppressed and ignored for centuries. The infrastructure we operate within is called the Internet. It is designed to allow for equality and openness of personal and communal expression. It’s our opportunity to jump through the formality, and engage directly with the Lord of the Manor.
Despite the efforts that are taken to silence people wherever they are, whoever they are and whatever their cause may be, they are not the servants in this new world. They will not be silenced.
Be seen; be heard.

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

Reflections on the JFNA (UJC) General Assembly

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I spend a good part of last week in Washington D.C. at the Jewish Federations of North American (formerly the United Jewish Communities) General Assembly. This gathering of over 3000 Jews from across North America, and the world, is an amazing experience of the diversity and eclectic nature of the Jewish people.

I think that all Jews, from time to time, think that they are the “average” or “normal” type of Jew. We often forget that there are so many other types of Jews out there, and that so many of them are living very connected Jewish lives. It’s important to have experiences like these with different types of Jews in order to break that feeling of homogeneity.

I had the opportunity over the course of the program to participate in a session run by and for a group of young and passion Jewish Social Entrepreneurs. I was sitting at a table with an active and involved Jewish atheist, two representatives from Keshet (working towards the full inclusion of LGBT Jews in Jewish life) and other types of Jews I rarely have the honor to connect with. As one of the few Orthodox Jews in the room, I was as unique as everyone else – I felt a strong sense of achdut in that moment of plurality.

There is often a misnomer in the Orthodox community that we are the only keepers of the Torah, and that the other denominations mostly consist of lazy or apathetic Jews. In reality, there are so many passionate and educated Jews out there in the world that we are simply ignorant about. We need to break out of our shell, and appreciate the diversity and richness of the Jewish people today.

As a kehilla we need to continue to strive for more of these experiences that bring us together as Jews. We will all benefit from knowing more about eachother, learning from one another, and bonding closer together in our peoplehood.

I look forward to building upon my GA experience at Limmud NY 2010 – will I see you there?

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