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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.

 

Goodbye, New York Times

Dear New York Times,

It’s over between us.

For 30 years, I’ve been in love with you, NYT.

I met you soon after I moved here from Chicago. Never before had I read such thoughtful, compellingly written journalism, with dispatches from all over the globe that mirrored my politics and my interests. You opened my eyes, New York Times. Back in Chicago, the papers covered only local news, but you showed me there was a larger world out there, filled with enchanting possibilities.

It was love at first sight. From that very first time, I turned to your editorials and op-ed pages to shape my opinions. I wouldn’t see a movie or a play until I read your reviews. I chose books based on your recommendations. I tore out your recipes and saved them in a special notebook. It was a thrill when my illustrations appeared in your hallowed Sunday Magazine. The papers that described 9/11 and the election of our first black President are preserved lovingly in my basement.

 

 

Greetings, nods, and the art of saying “pajamas”

Walking through the streets of Teaneck this past Shabbos, I started thinking about a “good Shabbos” game my brothers and I used to play each week as we made our way across town.”

“P’jms.”

My 11-year-old brother snickers once the man — who had barely looked up from the sidewalk as he passed but still managed to mutter something resembling “gdshbs” under his breath — is well behind us.

A second opportunity arises. Two women, power-walking, speed past us on the left. They’re absorbed in conversation, but one nods and the other throws a quick “Good Shabbos” over her shoulder. “P’jms,” my brother mumbles. Quickly. It has to be said quickly for both full effect and so as not to be discovered. The women continue on, oblivious to this wordplay.

A minute passes. An approaching teenager with hands in his pockets eyes us from afar and abruptly crosses to the other side of the street. My brother scowls, a pajama-moment taken away from him.

 

 

Superhero spring

The second quarter of 2014 has been rather remarkable for superhero movies, with three different films, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” and “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” in the theaters all at the same time at one point.

All three movies are adaptations of Marvel Comics, the publishing group launched by Stan Lee (aka Stanley Lieber) in 1961, and purchased by Disney in 2009. Stan Lee was the son of Jewish immigrants from Romania, and as a teenager took a job in 1939 with Timely Publications, the company that he eventually would evolve into Marvel Comics.

 

 

RECENTLYADDED

‘The heart that feels not now is dead’

“It is the good fortune of many to live distant from the scene of sorrow; the evil is not sufficiently brought to their doors to make them feel the precariousness” of those living under conditions of war.

This observation aptly describes the experience of Jews who have been watching increasingly tragic events unfold in Israel from the privileged safety of our American diaspora. These words were penned, however, by Thomas Paine — American author, political theorist, and philosopher — in his celebrated 1776 pamphlet, “Common Sense.” The precarious conditions he described were, specifically, the privations and predations endured by colonists in my native Massachusetts, besieged and subjugated with particular brutality by the British army. Paine wrote in order to arouse sympathy and solidarity among colonists at a distance from the conflict — those, say, in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and South Carolina. His admonition in “The American Crisis” resounds with wisdom for Jews ostensibly far from “the scene of sorrow” during Operation Protective Edge: “It matters not where you live, or what rank of life you hold, the evil or the blessing will reach you all. The far and the near, the home counties and the back, the rich and the poor, will suffer or rejoice alike. The heart that feels not now is dead.”

 

 

Love thy neighbor

Isn’t it hopeless?

Here we go again, with Hamas attacking Israel from Gaza for the third time, just weeks after the kidnapping and tragic death of three Israeli youngsters and the horrendous act of burning a Palestinian boy alive by our own.

Who can bear it? And how will it ever end? Isn’t it hopeless?

There is a popular chasidic-style song with some significant words for times like these: “We are believers the children of believers….” Well, though it strains belief, in the midst of all this terror and bad blood between Israelis and Palestinians, there was a peace initiative that actually went viral.

 

 

From the narrow places

As a teenager I was a competitive faster — and summer was my season.

As a camper and then as a staffer at Camp Yavneh in Northwood, New Hampshire, I shone in my ability to fast for two long, hot summer days, separated by only three weeks — and the second of those fasts even started at sundown the night before.

Don’t jump to any conclusions. There was no eating disorder involved. If anorexia and bulimia were known at the time, they must have been banned in Boston. It is simply a Jewish ritual that, maximally observed, got you out of swimming for three weeks, without having to plead menstruation, and garnered praise from the more Orthodox among the faculty.

 

 
 
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