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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.

 

Remembering Regina Jonas

Conversion to Judaism is very much in the news today — and for all the wrong reasons. But at the moment, my interest is not in the history of conversion itself, but in the way that it is read into next week’s Torah reading, parashat Lekh Lekha (Genesis 12-17).

The Torah reading opens with God commanding Abraham to set forth on a journey to a place unknown. Abraham sets forth with his wife Sarah, his nephew, all their possessions, and “the souls that they had made in Haran.”

How does someone “make” souls? The midrashic collection Genesis Rabbah, compiled some time in the fifth through eighth centuries, interprets this strange clause as referring to converts. Why did the text say “made” instead of “converted”? To demonstrate that converting someone to Judaism is like creating that person anew. But why the plural? Doesn’t it really mean that he, Abraham, had made or converted those souls? No. Abraham converted the men; Sarah converted the women (Genesis Rabbah 39:14).

 

 

Clouds of glory, clouds of honor

That future generations may know that I made the children of Israel live in booths (sukkot) when I brought them out of the land of Egypt — Leviticus 23:43.

‘Booths’ — clouds of honor (ananei kavod) — Rashi.

When we were young, many of us were taught that the sukkah — especially its essential covering — represents something otherworldly. The structure in which we were dining was meant to evoke the divine clouds that sheltered the Israelites in the desert.

 

 

A tale of two sermons

A few years ago, on the first day of Sukkot, Rabbi Yosef Adler delivered this sermon at Teaneck’s Congregation Rinat Yisrael, where he serves as spiritual leader:

“During the Sukkot holiday, in birkhat hamazon, our blessing after meals, we recite the following prayer: ‘Harahamon hu yakim lanu et sukkat David hanofelet,’ ‘May Hashem establish for us the fallen sukkah of David.’

Why the image of a fallen sukkah for the Davidic kingdom, he asked. Why not a castle or some other sturdy structure?

 

 

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Cold hearts and sub-Saharan Jews

I remember vividly how moved and inspired I was as a child when — at a very early stage of my Jewish education — I was introduced to the sage Hillel and his own youthful entrée to Jewish scholarship.

Hillel went on to become a renowned scholar, a beloved and oft-quoted national leader, and the founder of an important rabbinic dynasty. The brief story — my first “Talmud lesson” — is familiar. Working as a poor woodchopper, Hillel would devote half of his meager earnings to daily necessities. The other half he spent on the fee required for admission to the bet midrash — the Babylonian academy where Torah was taught by the great Shemaiah and Avtalyon. One winter Friday (during the month of Tevet, the Talmud records) he was without sufficient means to enter the citadel of learning. He was turned away. Undeterred, he climbed atop the roof, to listen to the lesson through a skylight. There he stayed until Shabbat morning, when he was found covered by three cubits of snow. “The snow came down from Heaven,” the text (Yoma 35B) says lyrically. (Even in my New England childhood, that daunting volume of snow fired my imagination!)

 

 

Past imperfect

For traditional communities, the past is normative.

The past, rather than the present, provides the best model for daily life. As the past’s standard-bearer, the traditionalist may even question the legitimacy of the present: Leaving aside technological advances, what moral or spiritual value can modernity offer, compared to the timeless legacy of the past?

Religious traditions especially, which are by nature highly conservative, judge new trends by their conformance to time-honored ways of life. Intellectual innovation, to be sure, may be encouraged, as long as it remains within the boundaries of tradition. In our own society, for example, a hallmark of Talmud scholarship long has been the ability to formulate a novel legal analysis, whose implications are normally theoretical. But in practical matters, custom rules. (There are notable exceptions among halachists of great stature; the Vilna Gaon, for example, often ruled against common practice based on talmudic sources.)

 

 

Support for depression is right around the corner

My friend and I stand in the doorway and survey the room.

A dozen or so chairs are laid out in a wide circle and I can’t tell if the setup is inviting or scary or both. My nerves are like jumping beans in my stomach. My friend nudges my left arm.

“You okay?”

I scan the room skeptically.

“Unclear.”

I watch the arriving participants as they straggle in, some in pairs, more often alone. They all look like regular, decent people. Some seem shifty and uncertain — I suppose just as I must appear to them — but no one screams “crazy” to me. There is no neon sign above anyone’s head that reads:

ABOUT TO CRACK!

 

 
 
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