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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.

 

Why Ferguson matters to Jews

“Standing on the parted shores of history, we still believe what we were taught before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot:

“That wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt; that there is a better place, a promised land; that the winding way to that promise passes through the wilderness.

“That there is no way to get from here to there except by joining hands, marching together.”

This passage is read every Friday night at my synagogue, Barnert Temple, and I am moved each time it is read. Ever since I was a teenager, I would picture Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. walking hand in hand in 1965, marching for voting rights in Selma, Alabama.

 

 

To a daughter on her way to Israel

We spend much of Thursday at Marshall’s.

“What do you think?” I ask you, frowning. “Here. Add up these numbers.” I read you the measurements of the cute red wheelie bag, and you punch the figures into your phone.

“It comes to 44, Mom. Perfect!” Perfect for El Al, that is. Height plus width plus depth, the dimensions of your carry-on luggage may not exceed 45 inches.

“That’s great, sweetie!” I say cheerfully, and we wheel it to the cashier. One more thing we can cross off the list.

 

 

Jewish time

Have you forgotten that the seasons have no regard

for the sovereignty of the sun

and instead attend upon

the grace and glory of the moon?

have you forgotten that the day begins

with evening’s song

and ends with shadow’s conquest of the hills?


 

I never heard any talk about “Jewish time” until I moved to New Jersey. When I was growing up, my family belonged to a Reform temple in Forest Hills, New York, and maybe it still retained a strong sense of its German-Jewish origins. Punctuality is a value, some say an obsession, present in powerful form in British as well as German culture, and by extension the Anglo-Saxon-dominated culture of the United States. And it was marginalized groups that were known to possess a different sense of time from the mainstream.

That’s why, back when I was a college student in the ‘70s, I heard references to stereotypes about “Indian time” for Native Americans, “Spanish time” for Latinos, and “Black time” for African-Americans. But back then, I never heard anyone talk about “Jewish time” or “Hebrew time” to explain why, for example, services scheduled to begin at 8 p.m. might not actually start until 8:15 or 8:20.

 

 

RECENTLYADDED

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).

 

 

Lord of the fruit flies

All right, I confess. Some Jews have Christmas envy.

Me, I have Halloween envy.

When it gets cool and the leaves change color, I long for cornstalks on my doorstep, candy corn in my candy bowls, gourds on my table, spider webs on my bushes, trick-or-treaters ringing my bell. Sometimes I drive to Bergenfield and Bogota to get my Halloween fix. And, O.K., maybe I wrote a short story that managed to incorporate both the Holocaust and a werewolf.

Still, I like to think I have it under control.

 

 

A reason for optimism

A Frenchman, a German and a Jew were wandering in the desert. All three were parched with thirst. They each craved their favorite drink.

The Frenchman proclaimed, “I am thirsty! I must have a glass of wine!”

The German said, “I am thirsty! I must have a frothy beer!”

The Jew said, “I am thirsty! I must have diabetes!”

Jews are a worrying lot. We often are consumed by fear, and see our glasses of wine and beer as only half full. Perhaps that is from years of persecution, or perhaps it is just part of our DNA. Any way you slice it, we are pessimistic.

 

 
 
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