Live from the Lilith Blog 1 of 2

May 14, 2012 by

Orthodox Judaism, My Soul is Sick with Love for You

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On Thursday, the Orthodox Union issued a statement publicly opposing the President’s recent stance on same-sex marriage. I read it that afternoon, got up from my desk, walked into the office bathroom, and cried. If the OU does indeed represent Orthodox Judaism, as they assert, the path towards a more honorable Orthodoxy seemed too long. I conceded to myself that feminism or LGBTQ inclusion within the movement really is an oxymoron, a fantasy. It was time for me to finally break up with Orthodox Judaism.

Yet on Shabbos morning I was back in my Orthodox synagogue, holding the Torah and reading a prayer out loud on behalf of the congregation.

Participating in that part of the service—either reading aloud the prayer for the American government, for the State of Israel, or sometimes both—has been bittersweet because it is an innovative but limited opportunity for women to have an increased role in the ritual space. See, I believe that increased sensitivity and inclusion within the framework of halakha, traditional Jewish law, is not only feasible, it is a communal obligation. While this year I became less observant again (I grew up completely secular), and I haven’t currently been identifying as Orthodox, I have stayed in an Orthodox community because I feel compelled to work from within the movement to increase opportunities for women in the ritual space while remaining within the contours of halakha. Thankfully I am not the only one thus compelled; there are other people, entire organizations, and communities like mine working towards a shared vision of an ever-improving and increasingly inclusive Orthodoxy.

I usually read the prayer for the American government out loud. The prayer itself has never particularly moved me, but this Shabbos as I read, a warm rush of gratitude and pride coursed through me. The familiar words danced and came alive: “May [God] bless, preserve, and guard, help, exalt, and make great, and raise high the President of these United States, and the Vice President,” I read. I thought about Obama and Biden, and the moves they made to support same-sex marriage. I asked aloud for God to instill in their hearts compassion to do good with us. “Let us say amen,” I read, and my community responded with one voice: “amen”. I thought about whoever wrote the OU statement, and wondered how they felt that same morning, hearing those same words in their own community—though presumably not read out loud by a woman. I returned to my seat shaking.

I was a wreck. Sometime between then and the end of services, between half a dozen different bouts of tears as I prayed, it hit me: maybe I am Orthodox. I certainly feel Orthodox communally—perhaps my personal religious practice is just between me and God. Either way, I cannot leave Orthodox Judaism. Not right now. I care too much.

My friends keep asking me why I was so surprised by the OU’s statement. I agree that it’s unsurprising that a leading Orthodox institution opposes same-sex marriage; the topic of same-sex relationships in Orthodoxy is complicated, to say the least, mostly due to legalistic prohibitions stated in the Torah itself. No, it was not surprise I felt, but deep disappointment and disgust. The statement was a slap in the face—due to its utter lack of sensitivity, empathy, and grace, due to its neglect of the issue of prejudice within the Orthodox community, due to its absence of acknowledgement that a community is more than just law and comprises a diverse set of values and individuals.

The OU easily explains themselves: “as Orthodox Jewish leaders”, they write, they are opposed to any kind of effort to alter the (civil!) definition of marriage to include same-sex relationships; however, I know many Orthodox Jewish leaders who would condemn their statement.

To the Orthodox Union, I will try to respond as sensitively as I know how (and I know sensitively):

The values you are advancing are not the complete set of values of the entire Orthodox community. You are not addressing the entire Orthodox community, nor are you speaking for the entire Orthodox community—a community which maybe even includes me.

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  • http://vesomsechel.blogspot.com Rabbi Joshua Maroof

    Halakha clearly prohibits gay marriage, despite the fact that this runs against the prevalent spirit of liberalism and inclusion in our society. This is sufficient reason for us to expect any institution representing halakha to similarly oppose gay marriage, although such opposition should always be tempered with the compassion and grace appropriate to the subject matter. While sensitivity to the plight of homosexuals is commendable and even laudable, the reality is that the Torah, on philosophical/theological grounds, does not permit homosexual behavior and never will. One who thinks the Torah should be changed to fit more comfortably with the social mores of 21st Century America is not an Orthodox Jew and cannot speak on behalf of those of us who – while concerned for the suffering experienced by gay and lesbian Jews who struggle with the conflict between their desires and their religion – nevertheless believe that the Torah is eternal and unchangeable. It is more than a little sad that the author of the article is inspired by those who contradict the teachings of the Torah but is repulsed by those who sincerely defend and uphold them. She has infinite admiration for the former because their words and deeds fall in line with her morally liberal opinions, while harboring scorn for the latter who dare to stand by the Torah and will not compromise their convictions. Orthodoxy is not accepting the Torah when it agrees with conclusions you have already reached.

  • Erin J-A

    “Amen.” And thank you.

  • http://acrazynation.wordpress.com Gedalyah Reback

    I cannot disagree more. An emotionless statement by the OU was made emotionally relevant by the author. If the OU cannot simply forward an intellectual, substantive position without being called insensitive, there is simply no way anyone can debate this issue. Treating homosexuals like people isn’t synonymous with shutting up when it comes to the issue of gay marriage. I don’t have to support it or remain oblivious to it in order to recognize the emotional gravity of it.

    The Orthodox Union, among other Orthodox organizations, represents a collection of conservative groups that have been largely on the sidelines even as their position on gay marriage is brutalized in the realm of Western public opinion. As the author demonstrates, whether she realizes it or not, Orthodox formal groups’ position on the controversy is at odds with my generation’s acceptance of the major social trends. Partly because Orthodox leaders haven’t counseled the emotions of their gay constituents or perhaps partly because an intellectual debate involves challenging politically correct notions about innate sexuality or on account of a number of other reasons, Orthodox Judaism is losing adherents. It cannot catch up with the intellectual pounding that it and other religious groups are taking from a world that sees traditional religions’ positions as devoid of logic. Today’s logic is that homosexuality is entirely innate and therefore the position sexual practice can be regulated by a religion is nonsensical. For some, the idea the death penalty could exist for a ritual offense like breaking the Sabbath is also an anathema, falsely characterizing a cruel God or even indicating the edict is too ridiculous for God to actually have ever enacted it.

  • Just Another Orthodox Lesbian

    I share with you that sick feeling when a Modern Orthodox org feels the need to come out against civil rights such as secular marriage between two consenting adults. However, I also have to give voice to the fact that it does not help those of us who are frum and LGBT to have people who are not practicing Orthodoxy call themselves Orthodox. Instead it just lends itself to the image that anyone who is gay-friendly in the Ortho world is not, in fact, Orthodox. So embrace yourself as an egalitarian Jew and find a home in the egalitarian world – but please, don’t contribute to the perception that gay- and gay-friendly Orthodox Jews can’t possibly really be halachically observant Jews.

  • http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/author/ari-moshkovski/ Ari Moshkovski

    A wonderfully written article. The author does a great job conveying the complexity of her feelings. The pathos makes her main argument a bit hard to grasp, though. Does the author object to the OU’s opposition to same-sex marriage, or to the wording of the OU’s statement? What would a “sensitive” statement from the OU regarding homosexual relationships look like? If the author were writing her own statement, what would she say?

  • Joshua Herzig-Marx

    Thank you for writing this. While I could never join an Orthodox synagogue, or identify with the Orthodox movement for precisely this reason (among so many more) I deeply respect your efforts to create change from the inside. The world needs more people like you!

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  • Bob Lamm

    Dear Ms. Sugar,

    Many thanks for sharing this moving statement. I’m sorry to read some of the statements above. For whatever the words of a complete stranger are worth, you have my support and I wish you all the best.

  • http://www.maggieanton.com Maggie Anton

    In this country, we are supposed to have a separation between “church” and state. Jewish Law does not recognize marriage between a Jewish man and a non-Jew woman, or with a Jewish woman who has a civil divorce but no get. Yet OU doesn’t insist that these people cannot marry in a civil ceremony nor that the government should not recognize their union as worthy of tax and inheritance benefits. Since marriage confers so many legal benefits, it needs to be separated from religion. Let all couples obtain a marriage license from their local government authorities, and let various clergy marry only those couples whose union their denominations approve.

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  • Tuvia

    You feel orthodox. But do you accept orthodox ideas? Is the Torah G-d given? Does the idea that a father can sell a daughter in to slavery (but not a son) feel right to you? Is this your G-d? Is it your G-d that says a woman’s salary belongs to her keeper – either her father or husband? Is it your G-d that says a married woman who cheats is put to death, and a married man is not? Unless he cheats with a married woman – and that death sentence derives from her being another man’s property? Do you think orthodoxy is correct when it says a woman cannot serve as a witness at a wedding, or at a beis din? If not, why do you call yourself orthodox? Emotional reasons? There were people who couldn’t tear themselves away from fascist movements – they were so inspiring, so alive, so strong. I’m talking about Nazis and communists. Do you relate to them? How about men in the KKK? It feels so right, so right to call blacks n**gers. To think of them as less than us. How could something that feels so right be wrong?

    So I ask you: what do your feelings have to do with anything? Pick up Betraying Spinoza and read. Maybe the orthodox Jews who can show you how the Torah was written by man can break the spell. Try Professor Wright at Emory U, or this new Zev Farber guy. There are more.

    Education is a bummer, a downer. Indoctrination is inspiring and awesome. But you should be informed, not manipulated. If you seek the truth, you will not be disturbed by what a religion says. You may no longer be “inspired,” but you will be more honest, more aware, and more free.

    Tuvia