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The Gayish Problem

In a few months our son will become a man, with all the rights and responsibilities of Jewish adulthood. But what about us?

Jesse Green
November 06, 2006

Among the many strange fruits of American Judaism, up there with Star Wars yarmulkes and Sisterhood gift shops, the High Holiday admission ticket has always seemed especially peculiar and unsavory to me, as if Rosh Hashana were a popular carnival passing through town each fall. But at many synagogues the influx of nonregular attendees during the Days of Awe is so great that additional rooms have to be fitted out as makeshift sanctuaries, with closed-circuit televisions piping in prayers. Some congregations even rent larger facilities to accommodate their twice-a-year members. In New York, Congregation Beth Simchat Torah grows from a modest-sized gathering in a Chelsea church to one of the largest Jewish assemblies in the world, with more than 3,000 showing up for Yom Kippur at the Jacob Javits Center, a glass behemoth on Manhattan’s West Side that is otherwise home to dentists’ conventions and luxury boat shows.

Beth Simchat Torah bills itself as “New York City’s Synagogue for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Jews, Our Families, and Our Friends”—so perhaps it’s only fitting that its largest functions are so fabulous, with views of the sun setting over the Hudson River as Kol Nidre commences. I attended once, half expecting Liza Minnelli to lead the Amidah, but the spectacle of so many gay Jews turning the sow’s ear of rejection into the silk purse of self-acceptance made me uncomfortable. At Yom Kippur, it seemed to me then, pride and humility are not ideal pew-mates, especially squeezed in so tight.

Space is not a problem at our synagogue: at Union Temple, there aren’t enough congregants. Like all bar mitzvah candidates, our son Erez is therefore required to attend High Holiday services and most Sabbath services, too—which he does, more or less gladly, along with Andy and our younger son, Lucas. Andy actually enjoys being a part of the synagogue community, in part because it’s the one he grew up in; he has even joined the board, whose meetings he tries to hide from me as other spouses might hide assignations. He comes home with the telltale taste of Sanka on his lips.

I, on the other hand, go to services only under duress. When asked why, I usually offer the glib explanation that I had enough religion in my childhood to last the rest of my life. That excuse worked well enough when I was single and childless, but a 12-year-old son creates a different level of expectation. How will he learn to take his religion seriously, or at least regularly, if I don’t? A fair question, but one that makes the bar mitzvah process into a hurdle that the whole family must jump in tandem, even as (for similar reasons) we are hectored to attend the school play, root at the basketball game, bake for the PTA, volunteer in the classroom, and spend weekends inculcating good values by attending family hunger-awareness seminars.

The crushing weight of these expectations reduces them all to more-or-less equivalent chores. I now explain my absence from services by saying that in the division of household duties according to talent and taste, Andy got synagogue and I got laundry. To me the two activities offer roughly the same annoyances: the rhythmic droning, the endless cycle of rising and sitting, the lack of God. But with laundry there is the compensation of clean clothes when it’s over, whereas services leave me feeling vaguely dirty. Is it not, after all, hypocritical for an atheist to pray, or pretend to?

If the problem were merely atheism, though, I should feel comfortable at Union Temple; like most Reform and Reconstructionist congregations, it does not seek to challenge one’s unbelief. (Andy’s an atheist, too.) But in fact I have usually felt less comfortable in such congregations. My family came, as it were, from the other direction. I grew up attending a suburban Conservative synagogue that had been founded—by my parents, among others—in order to escape the stuffy formalities and high church pretensions of the urban congregations their parents had favored. The hoped-for distinction was evident in the name they chose. My grandfather belonged to Beth El, “house of God”; my parents and their friends dubbed their new shul “Beth Hillel,” after the scholar rather than the deity. Later, the two synagogues merged and awkwardly hyphenated their names.

Beth Hillel was meant to offer a more personal though still rigorous Judaism, and for a few years did so. But reform movements, especially perhaps “conservative” ones, evolve their own orthodoxies. As more families were drawn to the spirit of the young temple, more space was needed; a new sanctuary required donors to finance it. Donors expect to be listened to in matters of practice and policy, and do not always want moral instruction. They may get it anyway. After 30 years of blowing the shofar during the High Holidays, my father was summarily replaced one fall by a man who had made a very large gift to the congregation. When that man was unable to coax even a single good tekiah out of his dinky ram’s horn, a voice from the pews called out, “There is a God.”

That was my mother.

My father was partly reinstated in his duties and forgave the insult. But my mother had little patience for the mealy-mouthed. She didn’t mind disagreements but despised obfuscation. She mistrusted most rabbis (and included the rabbinate on a list of professions she deemed too dangerous for her sons to consider) not because of what they might preach but because she thought they were professionally insincere. From the moment a new young rabbi began his tenure at Beth Hillel in 1991 with a Rosh Hashana sermon urging toleration but not acceptance of homosexuals, she sought to reeducate him, never more so than when I was disinvited from speaking there—on the subject of life as a gay Jewish parent—because he felt that my remarks might be too controversial.

Eight years later, at Rosh Hashana this fall, this controversy rose again. The High Holidays are, for rabbis and other professional Jews, a chance to roll out their best rhetoric and grapple with hot-potato issues like “the Palestinian question.” In the weeks before the High Holidays, Arnold M. Eisen, the Chancellor Designate of the Jewish Theological Seminary, sent out a fundraising letter and gave speeches that set the tone for this year’s sermon at Beth Hillel (and, presumably, at other Conservative synagogues around the country, since JTS is the leading training institution for American Conservatism). Without specifically naming his bogeyman, Professor Eisen darkly alluded to the “crucial distinction between pluralism and relativism,” and urged Conservative Jews to stand firm for diversity without “overreaching.”

The rabbi at Beth Hillel was less artfully vague about his subject. Unlike Eisen, he noted in his Rosh Hashana sermon that the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly is expected to release in December its responsa—official guidelines on religious practice—regarding the role of gays and lesbians in Conservative Judaism. Can they be married? Can they be ordained? Then he asked a pair of questions meant to model fairness and balance:

Given the explicit prohibitions in the Torah against homosexuality, how can we endorse the gay lifestyle and open the ranks of Jewish religious leadership to those who are homosexual? On the other hand, given what we know about homosexuality, given our best medical information which confirms that homosexuality is much more about nature than it is about nurture or choice, how can we in good conscience not accept as equal partners in the Jewish community those who are gay or lesbian? There are no simple answers to these questions.

Actually, there are simple answers to these questions, but apparently the rabbi was not aware of them. Instead, he agonized for several more pages (the sermon was published online in the synagogue newsletter) about the difficult mechanics of change, as if the issue were not one of values but of procedure. To his credit, he pointed out that some of the controversial responsa the movement had issued in the past had worked out tolerably, including those permitting the ordination of women and the use of automobiles on Sabbath.

But there was a limit, he said. The possibility of gay rabbis and gay weddings in the Conservative movement, he said, was similar to the evolutionary “overshooting” that had produced the peacock, with its “ostentatious” tail, awkward flight, and other “abnormal” and self-defeating characteristics. He suggested that by evolving too fast toward acceptance of gays and lesbians, Judaism might “become the peacock, an extraordinarily attractive bird, but a bird which has changed too much, even for its own good.”

I’m not making this up.

Perhaps because my mother was not there to shout from the pews—she died five years ago—it did not occur to the rabbi that there were gay people, or their parents, siblings and friends, in the packed sanctuary that day. There were, of course. I have spoken to many of them now. One sent letters to members of the congregation, asking them to protest the rabbi’s comments. Another, a founding member, told me that she and a friend, whose son had died of AIDS, held hands and cried. She thought of resigning from the synagogue, as did my brother, though both reevaluated their decisions when their anger subsided.

But my father’s anger did not subside. It was not primarily directed at the rabbi; at 80, my father is not looking to burn bridges and, anyway, he slept through part of the sermon. Instead, he wrote to Professor Eisen at the Seminary:

I am a founder of my synagogue some 45 years ago. I was the third president and a board member for about 20 years. I still am a shofar blower and have been since the synagogue’s inception. My father was honored by the JTS over 60 years ago and was a member of our merged synagogue at the time of his death. My son is gay. He and his partner have adopted two newborn boys. Erez, the eldest, will become a Bar Mitzvah next year in a Reform temple in Brooklyn. How dare you have the chutzpa to still debate the standing in the Jewish community of this boy’s parents and then preach the all-inclusive message in your letter. I see this as sheer hypocrisy.

My family and I have been supporters of the Seminary for now three generations. No more. I cannot support their policies, their lack of empathy, and their debates over overt discrimination. I am not happy over my decision, but my feelings about the dignity of my children and respect for my father make this decision necessary.

Though he thought he had dealt with the matter sufficiently, a few weeks later, when asked to make his annual congregational pledge, my father found that he wasn’t able to write the check. In a letter to the president of the board, he said he would resign from the synagogue he had helped to build, with his own hands, if it could not find a way to stand up for the full enfranchisement of its gay members. In an email to me, he added, “I am sure your mother would have handled it in a more creative way, and I consulted her about it. I did not get an answer.”

I had not meant to deal with gayness in this bar mitzvah blog. It seemed, at first, irrelevant to the anxieties of faith and finance that most Jewish parents feel as their sons and daughters strike 13. But the Rosh Hashana sermon at Beth Hillel, now emailed all over the country, and especially my father’s response, brought me up short. Suddenly this issue seemed crucial to decoding my anxiety about confirming my son as a Jew. It wasn’t so much the Conservative movement’s impending policy decision that disturbed me as the way that policy was being discussed. It is one thing to disagree on gay marriage, but turning gay people into a problematic “other” just to score points seems unkind and ominous. I would have thought that Jewish leaders, of all people, would be wary of discussing groups of human beings in the third person as a difficulty to be resolved. Haven’t we heard this kind of language before? Something about rootless cosmopolitans and the Jewish problem?

Well, this was the gayish problem, and I couldn’t avoid it any longer, if only because its final solution will determine what kind of faith I am asking my son to take part in. Of course, on the face of it, it’s absurd to state that the desire of gay people to participate in Jewish life, marry, or become rabbis is a threat to Judaism, especially in comparison to the actual threats posed by (gay and nongay) people who want to leave Jewish life, divorce, or escape from rabbis. Judaism is not being forced evolutionarily beyond its natural state into useless shapes by those who would like to join it. Gay people have been playing a part in Judaism for centuries, as congregants, rabbis, parents, dissenters. The only issue now is whether they may do so honestly.

A more accurate metaphor would be one that notes how evolution is a two-way street, encouraging any adaptation that leads to survival. While some living things have therefore grown more complex through the ages, becoming stronger and more resilient, others have grown simpler and dumber. In that regard, the argument about “overshooting” is not appreciably different from the arguments made by anti-integration forces during the Jim Crow era, or Christian literalists who defy evolution not only as a school subject but as a part of nature, a part of God. I do not recognize a vision of Jewish life—especially from the pulpit—that seeks to narrow instead of expand its meaning. I would rather Judaism be a peacock than a paramecium.

But one of the problems with Judaism, and one of its strengths, is that what it “must be” is not prescribed. This allows for a good deal of hypocrisy. The Torah, a gay Orthodox friend informs me, is said to have 70 faces; it matters less which one we look upon than that we’re looking. Well, 70 faces is fine for a book. In a religious leader, even two is too many.

At its best, Judaism is an urgent moral confrontation with the world, not a series of abstract discussions on parliamentary matters. Growing up as an atheist Conservative Jew fulfilling obligations without faith, I used to look down on the Reform movement as too lax: a faith without obligations. Main Line Reform was the brazenly secular name of the local Reform temple—though some of us snootily called it “Main Line Reform Church.” Was anything so easy worth doing? And so part of my anxiety about Erez’s becoming a bar mitzvah was that it would be happening in the kind of congregation whose outlook once looked like Judaism Lite to me.

I don’t feel that way anymore. While Beth Hillel was fending off fantastical peacocks this Rosh Hashana, the rabbi at Union Temple was talking about global warming and the Jewish responsibility to save the earth. The gayish question never came up; we should be so lucky as to have the sanctuary flooded with homosexuals and bisexuals and who-knows-what-all wanting to marry as Jews, or serve on the pulpit. Reform Judaism cannot address my specifically religious dilemmas, but it’s hard to ignore what it offers instead: a tradition that would welcome me—and not just my son—as a man.

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