I was not surprised by the community’s strong reaction to The Jewish Standard’s decision to print an announcement of a same-sex marriage; to the paper’s subsequent apolgy; and to the paper’s subsequent apology for the apology.
I was surprised, however, even shocked, by the depth of animosity directed toward Orthodoxy and toward our community’s Orthodox rabbinate in particular. The level of underlying resentment that has surfaced during this controversy has shaken and saddened me to the core.
In print and over the Internet, innuendos, accusations, and outright lies have been presented and accepted as fact. We have been accused of threatening to organize an economic boycott of the Standard and of warning local proprietors that their kashrut supervision would be withdrawn if they continued to advertise in the paper. We have been called homophobic, callous, and cowardly. We have been labeled ayatollahs, mafiosi, Taliban, and thugs. The willingness of so many within our own community and beyond to believe the worst of us is truly disheartening.
Let me set the record straight. The Rabbinical Council of Bergen County never met to discuss this issue. The Jewish Standard was never threatened, bullied, or harassed by the county’s Orthodox rabbinate. No boycott of the paper was ever advocated by the RCBC. No proprietors under our supervision were ever contacted in any way about this controversy.
I know this to be true because I was the only RCBC rabbi to speak to representatives of the Standard, after the printing of the original announcement. While I did so with the knowledge of the RCBC leadership, I spoke in no official capacity. My approach was personal, as someone who has cultivated and enjoyed an excellent working relationship with the paper over the years. The substance of my message was simple. Based upon the intense feedback that I and others had received, the Standard had crossed a line with its publication of a same-sex marriage announcement. As a result, the paper was running the risk of alienating much of its Orthodox constituency – a possibility that I and many others would deeply regret.
But why, you may ask, must the Orthodox be so difficult? Why can’t they be inclusive?
In summary, the Orthodox approach to gays is guided by two essential principles:
1. Recognition of and empathy for the personal struggles of individuals within the gay community who wish to remain committed Jews.
2. Deep commitment to the integrity and continuity of Torah law that severely proscribes same-sex relationships.
How Orthodox rabbis practically deal with the tension created by these principles is certainly not uniform. Some of the rabbis of Bergen County, including myself, were comfortable signing a recent public statement of principles detailing a suggested Orthodox approach to gays within our community (this statement can be found at http://statementofprinciplesnya.blogspot.com/). Others, because of differences in substance or nuance, were not. All of us, however, are united in our clear commitment to respect all individuals, regardless of their sexual orientation – while remaining true to the principles of our belief. Not an easy task.
To appreciate our challenge, it might be helpful to consider another case in point. Years ago, the Reform movement decided to reverse centuries of Jewish tradition and accept Jews of patrilineal descent. When the Orthodox movement (and, in this case, the Conservative movement) refused to accept these individuals as Jews, we were criticized and roundly accused of a failure to be inclusive. No mention of the setting aside of generations of Jewish practice. Simply put, someone changed the rules, without our consent, and then found us guilty of not accepting those changes! Similarly, we are now being asked to celebrate a redefinition of marriage that we simply cannot halachically accept.
In the current situation, many within the Bergen County Orthodox community wonder how far we can be pushed before the Judaism portrayed in our Jewish communal newspaper no longer resembles the Judaism we believe in. We have objected to, yet ultimately tolerated, the advertisements for non-kosher restaurants; the announcement of events taking place on Shabbat, and other non-halachic inclusions. There is, however, a line beyond which many families will no longer be comfortable with the paper in their homes. This is not a threat; it is simply a statement of fact. If the community wants the involvement of the Orthodox, Orthodox sensibilities have to be considered. We all have our red lines. We just draw them at different places.
Personally, I have dedicated much of my rabbinic career to the building of bridges across denominational lines. At low points during the past few weeks, as I have witnessed the outpouring of rancor toward and the facile acceptance of outright lies concerning the Orthodox community, I have wondered whether such efforts are ultimately futile. I would hate for that to be true; I don’t believe it to be true.
Our community stands at a crossroads, confronting the critical challenge of relearning to deal respectfully with each other and with our differences. As we move forward, the Orthodox community has the right to demand exactly what others demand from us. Just as various segments of the Jewish community want us to recognize the legitimacy of their concerns to them, we have the right to demand that they recognize the legitimacy of our concerns to us. Only then can we move ahead with mutual respect and understanding.