Thank You, Professor

Several weeks ago, a friend called with a request: would I respond in print to an essay appearing in that week’s Forward? I took a look at the piece in question and, sure enough, the writer had taken off after Orthodox Jews as ethical miscreants for declining to ordain homosexuals. Now, of course, her calumny isn’t stated quite so plainly; that would be tres gauche. Instead, she writes in a certain familiar passive-aggressive, faintly paternalistic mode, the unmistakeable upshot of which is, however, precisely as I put it above.

Not that any of this is new. Blessedly insulated Orthos may not realize it, and may care even less, but they, entire communities — and generations — of them, are regularly tarred publicly in the secular and heterodox media and literature as moral Neanderthals for their beliefs on an wide range of issues. Often, however, the tarring is more implied than explicit, complicating the response.

What had actually so exercised my friend was another of the writer’s assertions: that one way of “changing the status of [homosexual] men . . . is to view the words the Torah uses to describe the realities of its own day as no longer accurate in describing the realities of today.” She proceeded to note that “this . . . method comes to us from Orthodox sources,” and indeed she names a prominent Orthodox rabbi and scholar (name omitted to protect the innocent) whose writings she believes ought to be used to support this endeavor.

Frankly, I had neither the intestinal fortitude necessary to address the latter matter, nor the inclination to grant even the modicum of fleeting legitimacy that such response would confer; instead, I drafted the following essay responding to the brass knuckles-in-silk glove assault on the Torah’s (not the Torah, which doesn’t say what you thought it says) Orthodox Jewish ethics. The Forward politely declined to print it, and so it appears here:

In the April 13 edition of the Forward, JTS Professor Judith Hauptman makes explicit a charge that is often only alluded to: that denial of ordination to homosexuals, or indeed, identifying their sexual relationships as Jewishly sinful, violates basic ethical norms of human dignity and individual freedom.

In drawing attention to the moral dimension of this issue, she has done a service for both Orthodox and Conservative Jews.

With her blunt accusation, Professor Hauptman enables thoughtful Jews to examine her premises closely and determine for themselves whether the hundreds of thousands of committed Orthodox Jews who, like the countless forebears who preceded them, subscribe to the Torah’s proscription of homosexual relations are, in fact, ethically deficient.

Following Dr. Hauptman’s lead, let us speak frankly. But first, let us agree not to obfuscate matters by debating whether the homosexual orientation is innate. Perhaps it is partly or wholly so, but such innateness is largely irrelevant to the core issue: whether G-d can both burden an individual with particular proclivities and bid him to grapple with them. Let us further not stymy dialogue with another hot-button issue: the effectiveness and relevance of so-called reparative therapies. These are both red herrings that prevent the emergence of reasoned light through the emotional heat they generate.

Orthodox Jews affirm that G-d gave us Jews a Torah that prohibits homosexual relations. Using her G-d-given free will, Professor Hauptman has the prerogative, of course, to deny that G-d did any such thing, and were that the basis of her critique, an Orthodox Jew would respectfully agree to disagree. She might even invite the professor to dialogue on the evidence for Sinai’s historicity, a subject that – for all its centrality to Judaism – strangely doesn’t seem to attract much interest in the groves of academe.

What an Orthodox individual cannot respect, however, is the notion that for the Torah to prescribe celibacy for the homosexual is to render him not fully human or Jewish, or, even simply an object of scorn. That kind of thinking is worse than heretical – it’s puerile.

Indeed, one might have assumed that Orthodox Jews would take great umbrage at being publicly skewered by heterodox critics like Dr. Hauptman as moral misfits for their beliefs on issues like this one or egalitarianism. Speaking for myself, however, and every Orthodox person I’ve ever discussed this topic with, we can’t summon much outrage, because the critique is, pardon me, nonsensical.

That’s because for us, the Torah’s directives are not just so much theological silly-putty, its texts amenable to contortion this way and that until they say what we wish them to. Rather, when G-d speaks, we strive to honestly understand His will; then, we bow our heads and strive to listen. Call it the E.F. Hutton theory of religion.

And G-d speaks through His Torah much as He does through the circumstances of the life He grants us, in all their beauty or bitterness. Thus, to shut one’s eyes tight and wish – or “contextualize” – the Torah’s words away is, from our vantage point, a simple-minded charade no less than it would be to wish away the challenges, and they are many and fierce, presented by one’s baser drives and character traits, or poverty, or disability or any other of the manifold miseries that life can contain.

A Jewish homosexual who seeks to honestly live Torah is challenged in a most fundamental aspect of his life, and quite severely so. He faces a lifetime of potential loneliness and frustrated drives, of potential negative self-image and spiritual doubt. But as a believing Jew, he knows it is G-d who has given him his life with its attendant challenges — some congenital, some acquired, some self-inflicted and some prescribed by the Torah, as it were — and that in this he is not a whit different from every other human being who has ever lived.

Some of these challenges, such as negative traits or addictions, can be tamed, even mastered, with resolve and wise guidance; others, such as chronic illnesses or disabilities, won’t ever be vanquished — but that’s not to say, the individual cannot triumph in very real ways. Isn’t all of this — life as struggle with outer challenge, as mastery of inner self and thereby of encounter with G-d — a basic life truth that all of us, of whatever religious orientation, know and live and pass on to our children?

And so, I echo Professor Hauptman’s colleague, Dr. Joel Roth, in forthrightly stating that “an inability to legitimate homosexuality halakhically makes no negative claim whatsoever about the humanity, sanctity, worth, and dignity of homosexuals.” Except that I’ll go further and say that to persist in accusing entire communities of Jews of making precisely that claim is, well . . . unethical.

In framing the ordination issue in moral terms, Ms. Hauptman has also alerted tradition-minded Conservative Jews to what their movement’s recent decision(s) on the matter may portend for the not-too-distant future. The professor herself draws parallels to the 1983 Conservative decision to begin ordaining women, and so it would be edifying to examine if and how the movement has, since then, reconciled its twin commitments to egalitarianism and pluralism.

Not very well, according to some insiders. Writing on the aftermath of that decision in Conservative Judaism, Rabbi David Feldman rued the fact that “we now threaten to cast overboard our vaunted pluralism. Convinced of, or insecure about, the moral correctness of our position, we declare the others to be immoral; we stigmatize dissent, we solicit uniformity. . . . [A]s soon as women’s ordination emerged as an option, . . . [c]ongregations that saw halakhic issues in female officiation from the pulpit were wrongly stigmatized as discriminatory.”

Writing in the same issue, Dr. Joel Roth, whose responsum formed the basis for the JTS decision, wrote that “[i]n my mind then and now, advocacy of ordination was in no way morally superior to opposition to ordination. Those were my understandings and dreams. Regrettably, almost from the very beginning I began to see my dreams dashed.”

Fascinating in this regard is a piece in the Spring 1986 issue of Conservative Judaism by Brandeis University chaplain Albert Axelrad entitled Let Principle Encounter Principle: Conservative Judaism and Religious Egalitarianism. He writes of “the disparaging notion conveyed to non-Orthodox Jews that their approach to Jewish religious life was devoid of “principles,” that it consisted merely of a set of “preferences.” No wonder that Liberal Judaism has taken on a pale complexion next to Orthodoxy, with many a Liberal concluding erroneously that Orthodoxy alone is authentic Judaism. . . .

The religious, liturgical equality of men and women is a firm, non-negotiable principle, not to be compromised or tampered with. Therefore, I am not yotzei if I daven in a non-egalitarian service. When I periodically attend an Orthodox service for some reason . . . I will make a point of davening biy’chidut (praying alone, privately) if it is unfeasible to participate in an egalitarian minyan before or after this Orthodox service, in order to be yotzei. . . . I make a point of explaining and emphasizing this concept to Progressive Jews, but it will take time for it to become pervasive.” (This piece clearly deserves its own post, perhaps about eleven months from now; silence in the interim is so difficult . . . — EK)

Fast-forwarding to the present, JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen, in announcing the decision to admit homosexual rabbinical students, repeatedly stressed that “pluralism means that we recognize more than one way to be a good Conservative Jew. . . “ But Joel Roth, speaking, perhaps, with the wisdom of experience, noted that “[r]ight now everybody is on their best behavior and they’re saying exactly the right things. The question is not what they’re saying right now, but what they’ll say a year from now.”

In fact, however, the drumbeat of moral superiority can already be heard. The JTA reported that “in interviews . . . it was the most vocal supporters of the move . . . who challenged the commitment to pluralism, arguing that the concept is overrated and even detrimental to the health of the movement.” One never heard this sort of sentiment after decisions were taken to permit driving on the Sabbath and the like, and for good reason: those issues carried with them no moral subtext.

Conservatism’s about-face on homosexual ordination is a watershed in more ways than one. After the Committee on Law and Standards’s vote in December, RA president Alvin Berkun observed:”The Conservative movement has been handed a teaching moment the likes of which we haven’t seen in 20 years.”


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4 Responses

  1. DMZ says:

    When did we stop ordaining non-practicing homosexuals? I can’t see a halachic basis for doing so.

  2. Bob Miller says:

    Years ago, I heard a Conservative clergyman deride a Reform clergyman who was advertising his availability to do interfaith marriages. The former said of the latter, “He’d marry a pig and a dog if there was any money in it”. Now the Conservative movement is evolving to an even lower level in that it would impose (not merely allow) the abominations described in the Forward on principle (not merely for cash).

  3. Larry Lennhoff says:

    Most of those few Orthodox Jews I know who will attend non-Orthodox services at all behave exactly as Chaplain Axelrod proposes – they daven b’yachid or at hashkama minyanim before attending the service. Would you have preferred if the recommendation had been to simply refuse to attend Orthodox services?

  4. Yaakov Menken says:

    Yes, Eytan, it’s not new, and it’s not new for Prof. Hauptmann. Nine years ago she was calling you intolerant for daring to follow your own standards of Kashrus in someone else’s home. In that case as well, she “contorted” Jewish texts (as you put it) until they said what she wanted them to, although that was precisely the opposite of what the texts actually said.

    One can only imagine how Saul Lieberman, who was once Professor of Talmud at JTS, would respond upon learning that today’s professor is recognized not for the ability to elucidate difficult passages and transmit faithfully the words of our Sages — but for the ability to creatively reinterpret Talmudic passages so as to lift from the pages an endorsement of current Conservative Jewish thought, much as a magician lifts a rabbit from a hat.

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