Friday, November 19, 2004

Letter in the Jewish Press: Homosexuality and the Jewish Community

A new letter in the Jewish Press. My remarks are on homosexuality, in regard to a recent scandal involving the Union for Traditional Judaism, the traditional wing of Conservative Judaism. They had revoked ties with a Brooklyn synagogue who had hired Rabbi Steven Greenberg, a openly gay Orthodox rabbi, to give the sermon on Rosh Hashanah.

This is an exceptionally difficult issue for an organization like UTJ and it illustrates the difficulties caused by mixing modern life with religion. UTJ has taken a firm stand against homosexual relationships, and they felt that allowing a rabbi who is open about his homosexuality to be on the pulpit was against their principles. I thought they made the right decision without causing too much carnage. My general feeling, though, is that the Jewish community must develop a policy for addressing homosexuality that does not alienate gay Jews. Homosexual relations (not homosexuality per se) are, according to a Torah, a sin, but there are far worse sins in my view, and since most Jews commit them in some form (think Lashon Hara), it seems hypocritical, and indeed, a form of copying the nations insofar as the attitude toward homosexuality has been copied from Evangelical Christianity.

Anyway, the Jewish Press has published an editorial opining that the UTJ's response wasn't strong enough.

Here is the letter:

Flawed Editorial?

In a recent editorial, you condemned the Union for Traditional Judaism as a "(watered-down) bastion of halachic rectitude" for failing to come out unequivocally enough against the Montauk Minyan`s inviting Rabbi Steven Greenberg, an openly gay Orthodox rabbi ordained at Yeshiva University, to give a sermon on Rosh Hashanah. You also decried the notion that the halachic views of one who violates a fundamental Judaic precept are deserving of respect. You even claimed that such an idea "would indeed come as news to generations of codifiers and explicators of Jewish law, spiritual giants whose priority was sanctification, not homogenization."

I could not disagree more. The UTJ response to the Montauk Minyan`s invitation to Rabbi Greenberg deserves commendation precisely because it stands in stark contrast to the scorched earth approach taken by too many rabbis and others on the hard right of the Orthodox spectrum, an approach which (wrongly) condemns homosexuality (even though the oft-quoted Vayikrah verse condemns homosexual sex, and not homosexuality per se). One need not agree with the entirety of "Trembling before G-d,” the film in which Rabbi Greenberg was featured a couple of years ago, to understand that this self-defeating approach has only driven gay people away from Judaism, rather than helped them to understand traditional Jewish views on the subject.

The UTJ did not attack Rabbi Greenberg`s character. Nor did it condemn his scholarship. It defended a principle without trying to destroy an individual who it felt did not meet its standards. The UTJ had the courage to acknowledge that which some rabbis less secure in their Judaism do not: Rabbi Greenberg deserved a chance to present his case in some forum, even if his ideas are considered by the majority of traditional leaders to be inconsistent with Halachic principles. The principle of open inquiry requires no less.

It is utterly incorrect to claim that the halachic views of one who violates a "fundamental" Judaic precept are unworthy of respect, assuming for our purposes that the invocation against homosexual sex is a fundamental Judaic precept. (My personal view is that homosexuality is very, very far down on the list on the threats we face as a people if it is on the list at all.) The Talmud, where disagreements over fundamental Jewish practices are common, is inclusive of the views of those who violated what are considered today fundamental principles. Pirkei Avot, our ethical lodestar, includes the views of heretics like Elisha ben Ahuvah. There are rabbinic figures of our own times whose opinions are properly valued though their ethics, sexual and otherwise, have been called into question.

A final point: I cannot help but note that even the UTJ makes the mistake of referring to homosexuality as a "lifestyle." This kind of terminology, by suggesting that the raison d`être for the existence of a gay person is his or her homosexuality, perpetuates the destructive approach I am talking about. The purpose of referring to homosexuality as a lifestyle is clear; by reducing a person who happens to be gay to his homosexuality alone, one can ignore the rest of the person`s attributes, those things that might endear him as a human being to one who otherwise believes that homosexuality is inconsistent with halacha. (It also begs the question of just how people who have seemingly spent little time with homosexuals know so much about the "homosexual lifestyle.")

Michael Brenner
Woodmere, NY

You can also find this letter here, at the bottom of the page. The original editorial may be found here.


At 1:30 PM, Blogger Irina Tsukerman said...

Who or what is Lashon Hara?

At 1:50 PM, Blogger Michael Brenner said...

Gossip and the like. People talking about other people behind their back. That sort of thing. In my view, it is a much greater sin than homosexuality because it turns people against each other.

At 7:33 PM, Blogger Irina Tsukerman said...

Not necessarily. The reason people gossip is because they have already turned against each other. Sometimes gossip is good-natured. And trying to keep people from gossipping is absolutely unrealistic; that's one of the most fun activities ever...

At 8:30 PM, Blogger Michael Brenner said...

Yeah, I know. The general idea is that you are not supposed to say bad things about people behind their backs, spread rumors, and things of that nature. We all do this from time from time, but we shouldn't. My position on gossip is that sometimes it's fun and sometimes it's extremely annoying and often hurtful. But in most cases, it usually involves either speaking ill of someone or spread things about people one doesn't know because one is afraid to ask.

I realize the principle isn't easy to swallow in modern life, particularly in a country with the First Amendment, but it's not a bad principle to live by, if we realize that if we don't want people spreading rumor and saying nasty things about us, we shouldn't say nasty things and spread rumors about them

At 9:21 AM, Blogger Irina Tsukerman said...

Generally, I agree, especially about the spreading of rumors part. But you know, there are times when it's very hard to keep oneself from doing that especially when you have no intentions of actually telling all that stuff to the person face to face but you can't help from reacting to his/her offensive behavior in some way. For example, that nasty girl in my class. She continues to behave in outrageous ways, and sometimes,when she's out of the room, my assigned group gossips a little about her. Obviously that's not very nice, but we don't mean any harm, and as long as she's decent towards, we reply in kind. However, she's such a character that it is very difficult for a roomful of people to keep from voicing an opinion about her actions. Besides, if no one ever discusses a situation, no decisions can be made.

At 5:10 PM, Blogger Michael Brenner said...

There are obviously exceptions. But, generally, if the point of the gossip is just to gossip, it's a problem. You never know why a person acts a certain way until you actually get to know them. It's always easier to scoff from a distance than to approach a person and find out what's troubling them.

At 5:15 PM, Blogger Irina Tsukerman said...

I guess you're right. But it's also very impractical to confront every single person you meet.


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