This week furor erupted over the New Jersey Jewish Standard‘s decision to halt all same-sex marriage announcements after running just one, highlighting the engagement of Justin Rosen and Avi Smolen (who happens to be a Rutgers grad). That decision was immediately followed by the newspaper reconsidering the ban. Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner responds.
Two weeks ago, the Jewish Standard newspaper of Bergen County, NJ announced an upcoming same sex marriage in its communal celebratory section. This was a first for the paper. The community responded with a firestorm of opinions. Many were supportive of the new initiative as representative of the plurality in the community. However, a large and vocal contingent of dissatisfied readers, predominantly Orthodox, claimed it was a violation of Jewish law from the Torah and must be stopped “or else.”
The paper this week printed a statement that stated the following: “A group of rabbis has reached out to us and conveyed the deep sensitivities within the traditional/Orthodox community to this issue…and the announcement caused pain and consternation. The Jewish Standard has always striven to draw the community together, rather than drive its many segments apart. We have decided, therefore, since this is such a divisive issue, not to run such announcements in the future.”
In essence, the paper was bullied into changing its stance to cater to the needs of some and alienating the needs of others. The Orthodox fell on the sword of religious dictum although it is nothing more than homophobia. Allow me to explain.
In the same paper, advertisements and articles run weekly that:
a) Advertise and promote non-kosher restaurants (some showing pictures of shellfish and pork);
b) Endorse non-religious activities that coincide with the Shabbat and holidays;
c) Publicize clothiers that sell clothing that mixes wool and linen, a biblical prohibition; and
d) Celebrate Bar and Bat Mitzvahs of patrilineal Jews. (In traditional Judaism, ancestry is determined by the mother. Reform Judaism allows for patrilineal descent to determine one’s lineage; Conservative and Orthodox Judaism do not).
Each of these four cases are biblical transgressions that appear regularly in the circulation of the paper. Nary have I seen an editorial or heard a protest over these items in direct contradiction to Biblical law that is routinely printed in the Jewish Standard. But, when Jewish men that love and commit to each other announce their intent to marry, the hands of the Orthodox are raised in protest. And their issue? It is biblically prohibited, as cited in Leviticus, Chapter 18.
If commitment to the letter of biblical law were the issue, both hands of the Orthodox would have been raised and waiving in protest years ago over the contradictions listed above.
Make no mistake about it. This is homophobia, masquerading as religious piety. Pure and simple.
The Jewish people have always been at the vanguard of civil rights issues. That connection stems from the biblical verse in Exodus 22, where God instructs the Jewish people to “Be kind to strangers, because you were a stranger in a strange land too.” God does not simply remind the Jews that they were slaves and foreigners in Egypt – God instructs them. That biblical teaching has been the compass for the Jewish people and the reason we have proudly stood shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Susan B. Anthony. It was that ethic that drove Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman to Mississippi in 1964 to stand next to James Chaney and help register African-American voters. Jews even died protecting the rights of the other. When did our compass stop working?
Homosexuality is the civil rights issue of this generation. Judaism specifically teaches us our responsibility to the ‘other’ and our role in standing side by side as brothers and sisters, perhaps divided by orientation, race, religion or creed but united in love of humanity, tolerance and respect.
This week alone, five young people took their lives because they felt unsafe in their sexual identity. An 18 year old boy from Bergen County had his privacy invaded and was publically mocked after he shared an intimate encounter with another man. His humiliation led him to jump from the George Washington Bridge. His lifeless body was pulled from the Hudson River two days later. As a community, our hearts should ache for these children. Mine does because my heart was shaped by the values of Judaism; the values that demonstrate to me that love of our fellow is the core of our cannon. My heart aches because of the centuries of teachings by our rabbis who uniformly taught that saving a life is paramount. All else is inconsequential.
Religion is a beautiful thing. There are many stripes, shapes and colors to religion and sometimes when they unite together, its diversity can shine like a rainbow. But all it takes is one color or one stripe to hide fear and phobias behind the mask of religious piety and leave us seeing the world in black and white. To blame the monochrome on religion instead of personal belief is cowardice. Regardless of how observant we say we are, not being honest to ourselves is the most sacrilegious act of all.