Welcome! I am Rabbi Jonathan Biatch of Madison, Wisconsin. "Pulpit Perspectives: My Observations as a Congregational Rabbi" is published every two weeks to reflect my observations about life in my congregation and with my members. The opinions expressed here are solely my own. I invite you to join the dialogue!

Friday, October 8, 2010

There is Still Far to Go

Thanks to the media we have a sharper focus on gay and lesbian teen suicide. What's needed is eliminating the prejudice that preceded it.

The following is an editorial that appeared in a newspaper called the New Jersey Jewish Standard this past Monday [October 4]:

“We set off a firestorm last week by publishing a same-sex couple’s announcement of their intent to marry. Given the tenor of the times, we did not expect the volume of comments we have received, many of them against our decision to run the announcement, but many supportive as well.

“A group of rabbis has reached out to us and conveyed the deep sensitivities within the traditional/Orthodox community to this issue. Our subsequent discussions with representatives from that community have made us aware that publication of the announcement caused pain and consternation, and we apologize for any pain we may have caused.

“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 the words of our Yom Kippur confessional liturgy: “Ashamnu – bagadnu – gazalnu. We are guilty; we have betrayed; we have stolen”.

And for me, questions remain. “Who is guilty?” and “Of what are they guilty?”

I wonder whether this newspaper took confession to a completely new level!

And here is one of the – literally – hundreds of responses to this editorial that appeared online, which the paper posted and for which I give them some credit.

This reaction sums up all the negative comments – and most if not all of the 421 comments posted online – as of October 7 – were negative:

“How on earth can someone else’s simcha cause anyone pain and consternation? If it does, that person needs therapy, not to throw his or her weight around and bully a newspaper into bigotry.”

Or this reaction, which is also typical: “While I am happy to learn that you want to be sensitive to those in your community who are bigoted and exclusionist, I wonder whether you even care about the rest of us, the majority, who welcome the announcement of love and commitment between two members of the Jewish community?”

This newspaper, its so-called “editorial”, the Orthodox impetus for its printing, and the reaction to it, represents – sadly – a microcosm of the American society in which we live.

Even in an era when gay teen suicide is a prevalent issue in our national dialogue and a problem to be addressed – and even within a theoretically enlightened Jewish community – we are in need of education.

This demonstrates the old adage that Jews are just like everyone else, but even more so.

We are in an entirely new epoch when it comes to our relationships with gay and lesbian members of our society. It has taken us years to move our nation and individuals within it, toward a time when a person’s sexual orientation is irrelevant to his or her place in society.

But there is still far to go.

There comes a time when acceptance must give way to activism. People of moral conscience need to work to create a community where gays and lesbians are accorded the same rights and privileges as everyone else.

This week’s Torah portion reviews the sins of the early humans that, in the eyes of our Israelite ancestors, were the precipitating factors of the flood of the era of Noah and the downfall of the Tower of Babel.

The story of Noah and the ark, similar to the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, has often been portrayed – in certain biblical fundamentalist circles – as a tale relating to so-called “sexual perversions” of humanity.

In addition to these narratives in the early Torah text, one can read the laws of Leviticus and infer that homosexual acts were something abhorred by the ancient Israelite community; these strictures are often used by fundamentalists to demonstrate that the Bible is against homosexuality.

But modern scholars now believe that these texts were more against homosexuality as a method of worship. Besides, sexual orientation was something that was not understood by our ancestors.

Still, because of fear, and following the pattern of many societies that were concerned with these kinds of issues, they condemned the practice without understanding its origin.

Today we know different.

Today we know that somewhere between 3% and 5% of the human family are homosexual. We also believe that God does not frown upon the expression of human sexuality, and that whether gay, lesbian, or straight, God’s divinity and image reside within each of God’s children.

But I am affected by a particular teaching in this week’s Torah portion, the section that deals with the destruction of the earth at the time of Noah.

The text says this: “Va-tishachet ha’aretz lifnei ha’elohim, va-timalei ha’aretz hamas.” “The earth was corrupted before God’s very presence, and the world was filled with violence.” And in these heated days of extreme national debate and angst, I think this may be true – in a way – about our nation.

But not in the way that biblical literalists think.

As a society, we have corrupted our land and committed violence against people. It’s just that today we have incited violence against yet another minority group whom we find easy to disparage.

Today, we legitimize old prejudices and encourage new discrimination by displaying examples of both in a Jewish newspaper.

Today, we can bully someone through the World Wide Web, showing video footage that is assured to bring embarrassment and humiliation.

Today, we can spread rumor and innuendo about anyone through the viral spread of Internet email and web images.

The media have put a well-deserved emphasis on the heart-wrenching suicides of gay and lesbian youth in recent weeks. But what really needs to brighten is the spotlight on the overt prejudice that has led to these needless deaths.

And in this election year, when self-aggrandizing politicians use anti-gay bias as a wedge issue, something is very wrong with the way we conduct our national business.

When homophobic interpreters of scripture mis-characterize the sins of the generation of Noah as being sexually based, they pervert the very validity of using the Bible as a book of moral instruction.

When we neglect to sincerely empathize with the families of Raymond Chase, Seth Walsh, Billy Lucas, Asher Brown and Tyler Clementi, five gay teenagers who recently committed suicide, we have permitted others to set the societal agenda. We have abdicated our role of leading a society by example.

Here is a set of statistics regarding gay and lesbian suicides that I found terribly distressing. I suspect you, too, will find them unsettling:

* Of all American teens who die by their own hand, 30 percent are lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, or queer.

* According to the 2007 Massachusetts Youth Risk Survey, lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are up to four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers.

* According to researchers in the journal Pediatrics, lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth who come from families that reject them when they come out of the closet, are more than eight times as likely to have attempted suicide than lesbian, gay, and bisexual peers who reported no or low levels of family rejection.

* According to a 2009 survey by GLSEN, a national organization that seeks to create healthier atmospheres on school campuses for all people, almost 85 percent of LGBTQ teenagers are harassed in high school because of their sexual orientation, with 61 percent of gay youth reporting that they felt unsafe in school and 30 percent staying home to avoid bullying.

We need to rid ourselves of prejudice and purposeful mistranslating of scripture. We need a certain kind of religious understanding that seeks not violence but rather tolerance and full acceptance, based upon the values of the text rather than ancient words that reflect fear and suspicion.

What is needed are more days similar to this Sunday’s “National Coming Out Day.” This is an annual event when gay and lesbian youth are encouraged to stop concealing their sexual orientation, and to disclose their orientation to those who know them and would be most supportive of this reality of their lives.

What is needed is more encouragement similar to that of the local cast of “Wicked”. Last Friday they placed on the YouTube website a two minute video reminding gay and lesbian youth that, ‘yes, it is difficult to reveal one’s homosexual orientation, but that the more one is honest and open about it, the easier it gets to do it.’

What is needed is our changing our attitudes. It actually helps society when our fellow citizens are able to be honest with themselves and with us regarding their sexual orientation. Suppressing one’s identity is unhealthy for the individual and for society.

What is needed is education and patience, but an always forward-moving set of attitudes.

What is needed is the expression of sincere remorse, and dedication to correcting past wrongs.

What is needed is for the religious community to take its place beside our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, and to stand firmly on the side of equal rights in all areas of life.

It is time for us to reach out to other religious communities and encourage them to say “enough” to bullying, to suicides, and to harassment due to a person’s sexual orientation.

I invite you to begin this process locally with me, along with clergy and members of other religious congregations.

We must bear in mind the words he who stood in the breach between Nazi atrocities and humanity, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He said, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil; God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

Finally, what is needed are more follow-up editorials like this one that appeared in the online version of the New Jersey Jewish Standard after the so-called “firestorm” that erupted because of that paper’s initial editorial stand:

“We ran the wedding announcement because we felt, as a community newspaper, that it was our job to serve the entire community — something we have been doing for 80 years.

“We did not expect the heated response we got, and — in truth — we believe now that we may have acted too quickly in issuing the follow-up statement, responding only to one segment of the community.

“We are now having meetings with local rabbis and community leaders. We will also be printing, in the paper and online, many of the letters that have been pouring in since our statement was published.

“We urge everyone to take a step back and reflect on what this series of events has taught us about the community we care so much about, and about the steps we must take to move forward together.”

Would that be the approach of all citizens in our nation!