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‘The answers lie in our love for our daughter’

 
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The brouhaha that has ensued over The Jewish Standard’s printing a same-sex marriage announcement in September may yet lead to a great deal of good, especially in the Orthodox community, in getting people to think more seriously about an issue that impacts thousands of Jewish lives.

I have been a member of Cong. Ahavath Torah, an Orthodox synagogue in Englewood, for 38 years. My rabbi, Shmuel Goldin, was in the vortex of the storm that ensued after he forcefully protested the printing of the marriage announcement. Rabbi Goldin represented the voices of members of the congregation who felt that printing the announcement contravened fundamental Orthodox beliefs by violating the traditional Jewish definition of marriage and giving legitimacy to homosexual unions, which are a breach of Torah law.

Twelve years ago, my daughter Tamar informed my wife and me that she was in love with a woman. Needless to say we were very distraught, as much by the horrible emotional anguish that our beloved daughter had been subjected to over the preceding several years as by the news that she was now different from most women in a very fundamental way. But for my wife and me there was never any question of rejecting Tamar or of altering our relationship to her in any way.

Over the next several years my wife and I learned a great deal about the homosexual community, about their suffering and struggle to be accepted into society and, in Tamar’s case, into the community in which she was raised. Tamar and her partner Arielle recently celebrated their fifth anniversary following a commitment ceremony and are a happy couple pursuing their respective careers.

How can my wife and I, as members of an Orthodox Jewish community, countenance all this?

The answers lie in our love for our daughter and her partner, our sense of basic human decency and fairness, and our feeling that Judaism is a religion to enrich rather than impoverish our lives.

First and foremost is our certainty that our daughter did not choose to be a lesbian. We have absolutely no doubt that her sexual orientation was chosen for her by genetic and biologic determinants over which she had no control. And we feel that this is true for the vast majority of gay people. If you will, God created her gay. If sexual orientation were purely a matter of choice, why would anyone voluntarily choose a path that so often leads to enormous emotional pain and suffering, and even, as we have recently seen, to suicide?

If that is the case, and the overwhelming majority of professionals who deal with these issues feel that this is so, it would be the height of cruelty to deny gays the fundamental right to companionship and physical intimacy that heterosexuals take for granted. The very same Torah that proscribes male homosexual intimacy states that after creating the first human being, God saw that “it is not good that man should be alone.” The very first divine observation made by God after creating man is that loneliness is intolerable and therefore, “I will make him a helpmate.” It is noteworthy that the term helpmate is gender neutral, perhaps implying that a person’s loneliness can be remedied by the close companionship of either sex.

More to the point, however, is the fact that 2,000 years ago, the rabbis of the Talmud grappled with a similar problem of innocent human suffering caused by a Torah commandment. Eliezer Berkovits in his book “Not in Heaven” discusses the moral conundrum for these rabbis posed by the law of the mamzer. The Torah states that a mamzer (a child born of a biblically prohibited union) was not permitted into the family community of the Jewish people. This was a very severe sentence for the innocent offspring of such a union. Although the law was intended to discourage such unions, the unfairness to innocent children was keenly felt by the rabbis. They sought to ameliorate the lot of the mamzer by applying the law very infrequently. In fact, the rabbis of the Talmud sought to circumvent the unfairness of a Torah law for innocents by burdening its applications with many restrictions. There are other examples where the rabbis greatly modified or even overturned a Torah law for compelling societal reasons.

The similarity of the law of the mamzer to the Torah proscription again homosexual sex is evident. In both cases innocent Jews suffer greatly because of a Torah law. The only way an Orthodox gay Jew can avoid transgressing this law is through a lifetime of celibacy. I challenge any rabbi who recommends this course to a Jewish homosexual to look into his heart and say whether he would be capable of such self-deprivation.

The challenge for the Orthodox Jewish community, and especially for its religious leaders, is to deal with the Torah prohibition against homosexuality in the same manner of compassion that the rabbis of the Talmud dealt with the law of the mamzer. It is easy to command that the letter of the law be adhered to — especially when it is someone else who suffers. It would be more difficult, but courageous and humane, for Orthodox rabbis to follow the ways of Hillel, who was known for his kindness and concern for humanity, rather than the ways of Shammai, who was far stricter in his interpretation of the law. Unfortunately, we live in a time when the flag of Shammai is ascendant.

Within the Orthodox Jewish community there are, however, hopeful signs that at least some rabbis are sensitive to the plight of the observant gay Jew. More than 100 Orthodox leaders recently signed the “Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews With a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community.” This document, while reaffirming the Torah prohibition against gay sexual acts, advocates understanding, compassion, and inclusion of gay Jews within the Jewish community. This document would not have been signed by Orthodox leaders only a few years ago.

Lastly, I must commend Rabbi Goldin for signing the document. It is sad that because of the more rigid halachic positions of most Orthodox rabbis, Rabbi Goldin’s position required courage. But the process of re-examining the Orthodox position on homosexuality has begun — and there is no turning back.

Dr. Kenneth Prager
Dr. Kenneth Prager lives in Englewood.
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Stay tuned for the return of comments

Jay Sel posted 29 Oct 2010 at 09:13 PM

I think you need to be more clear on what the “Orthodox position” on homosexuality is. One could understand your words to mean that traditionally, the orthodox position is that homosexuality is forbidden, but given the argument made above, this needs to be re-examined. This would imply a possible heter - or permission granted to one who wishes to transgress the homosexual act. However, as one who is self-identified as orthodox, I assume you mean not to change halakha, rather our attitude towards homosexuals - in terms of judging them, dismissing them, etc. should be reevaluated, such that we instead shed love, care, and understanding upon our fellow Jews. This latter understanding is certainly important and proper; the former understanding is entirely against the Torah and halakha and tradition.

Rabbi Jarah Greenfield posted 30 Oct 2010 at 01:10 AM

A beautiful testimony.  Readers should also find Tamar Prager’s 2006 article in Lilith Magazine (available online) as well as a recent publication of which she is a contributor, “Keep Your Wives Away From Them: Orthodox Women, Unorthodox Desires.”  I am grateful for the compassionate and intelligent voice of Dr. Prager whose position in the Orthodox world enables others within it to hear a message that is unfortunately dismissed when spoken from the perspectives of Jews, rabbis, and scholars of other Jewish denominations.

Aaron Samuelson posted 01 Nov 2010 at 07:56 AM

Lovely essay.
GLYDSA (the gay and lesbian yeshiva day school alumni association) has been serving the orthodox gay and lesbian community for over 15 years. In fact, Tamar Prager and Arielle spoke at a meeting a few years ago about their story.

Ariela M posted 08 Nov 2010 at 08:15 AM

Thank you for this moving essay.  I hope your words are heeded not only by other fathers and mothers, but by community leaders.

 

Tzitz, tefillin, and the halachic process

Recent weeks have seen much discussion about the permissibility of women wearing tefillin.

Although I do not question the sincerity of the parties involved, and maintain high regard for the individuals involved, I see this as an opportunity to reflect on the unique mitzvah of tefillin and on maintaining the integrity of the halachic process. In addition to the specific halachic question involved, this controversy also raises the broader question of how halachah functions, and I would like to provide some perspective on both of these issues.

 

 

Ask the right questions

With the arrival and maturation of my generation, the Millenials, the question “Who is a Jew?” is rather passé.

Forget the halachic dimensions to this endlessly debatable topic. Forget all the moralizing arguments over the issue. Forget the demographically induced paranoia, the post-Holocaust hand-wringing, the Israeli legal maneuvering (not to mention the pandering that comes with it), and the denominational infighting. And — for heaven’s sake! — forget the Pew study.

The fact is that “Who is a Jew?” is the wrong question. To maintain our relevance — to regain it, really — the question we must ask today is “Why be Jewish?”

 

 

We need to ask new questions

I have survey fatigue.

It seems that every other year a new survey about the Jewish population is published. When it is, we have the inevitable hand-wringing from many corners of the Jewish world about the statistics and trends present in the survey. Indeed, the last Pew Study on the American Jewish Population, which was released last fall, has caused the usual spike in anxiety.

What is interesting about this particular Pew survey, though, is that is can be read in two completely different ways, one positive and one negative. More ink has been spilled on the seemingly negative statistics that came out of the survey. Twenty-two percent of Jews identify as cultural Jews, or as the survey calls them, “Jews of no religion.” These Jews are more likely to intermarry and move away from the Jewish community entirely. Two thirds of the Jews of no religion are not raising their children as Jews. Intermarriage rates also are rising; the study says that six in 10 Jews who have gotten married since 2000 have married a non-Jew. Observance levels across the board are also declining; when compared to the 2000 National Jewish Population Study, slightly fewer Jews are attending Passover seders and observing Yom Kippur. And when people change denominations there is a trend toward becoming less observant — or more liberal. Reform Judaism is now being the largest Jewish denomination, and people leave Reform to become “Jews of no religion.”

 

 

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Passover reflections

Freedom is a tricky entity.

It can open avenues of positive imagination and creativity because a free people’s potential belongs ultimately to them and need not answer to a master who may limit that potential.

This is why the Haggadah must open with questions. Indeed, the Talmud tells us that if a person celebrates Pesach alone, he must ask himself the questions that lead into the story of the Exodus. The right to question, the ability to challenge authority, is the sign that a person ultimately is free. As long as an authority can say, “Keep that unacceptable idea to yourself,” you are not free. Therefore our Festival of Freedom must start with questions, which are always in some way subversive.

 

 

Why be Jewish? I’ll answer the question myself

In March I wrote in the Jewish Standard about the challenges posed to the organized Jewish community by my generation, the much- (if not, over-) discussed Millennials (“So, really, why be Jewish?”).

We need to refocus ourselves, I said, by turning away from questions like “Who is a Jew?” The key Jewish question of our time is this: Why be Jewish? “With the arrival and maturation of my generation, the Millennials, the question, ‘Who is a Jew?’ is rather passé,” I wrote. “The fact is that ‘Who is a Jew?’ is the wrong question. To maintain our relevance—to regain it, really—the question we must ask today is ‘Why be Jewish?’”

 

 

Hudson County is welcome to the federation

I read Joshua Einstein’s op-ed piece in last week’s Jewish Standard with great interest (“Hudson County needs a federation”).

He’s made a great case for creating a formal connection between Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and the Hudson County Jewish community. His argument makes sense. Northern Hudson County has been in our coverage area for many years, so we already have connections there. We now provide services to southern Hudson, including those services Einstein mentions, and more. So it all seems like a natural fit.

 

 
 
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