Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Our Community's Shame: The Alienated LGBTQ+ Orthodox Jew

Today, a brave student named Joshua Tranen wrote an article in The Commentator entitled "Why I left YU, and Why I'm Writing About It Now."

Joshua is gay, and that is the sole reason he is now studying at Yale University. He did not feel safe at Yeshiva University. We, members of the Orthodox community, have allowed that to happen. And thus, it is up to us to fix it.

When I was in high school, I underwent some very challenging experiences. I was a seeker, someone who asked a lot of questions, attending a school on the Bais Yaakov spectrum. As you can imagine, this situation led to clashes. I was disturbed by teachers' rhetoric, actions and the ways in which they were allowed to treat me (and others). Despite my pain, the school principal and other members of the rabbinate refused to believe me, support me or help me when I was falsely accused of improper behavior. In the end, I switched from that school to the non-Jewish North Shore Country Day School in Winnetka, an experience which brought me a great deal of healing.

Out of my pain, I once wrote a post to the off the derech community saying that I understood them completely. I had been there. I knew what it was like to be betrayed by the rabbis and teachers who were supposed to be your guides and role models. I knew what it was like to be lied about. I knew what it was like to be hurt. I knew what it was like to be so angry that I felt like Judaism itself was at fault. For two years after my high school experience, I did not touch a siddur, a chumash or engage in typical Jewish study. (I did attend TI and take Jewish Philosophy courses, which were refreshing and helpful when it came to forging my understanding of the religion). I was too angry and too hurt.

And that is the reason that I feel the pain of LGBTQ+ members of our community. People like Joshua have to force themselves to "gather the strength required to learn, for yet another day, alongside rabbis that had publicly called gay people an abomination, blamed them for natural disasters, and advocated for conversion therapy—a pseudoscience so dangerous it has been outlawed in many states." He and others live in fear of being "discovered" or outed.

Joshua shared his gay identity with his roommate. The roommate was so disturbed that he immediately moved out. Now, I understand why this might be. It must be disconcerting to realize that the person you are living with potentially views you as a sexual partner. You probably would have behaved differently (in terms of how you dressed, if nothing else) had you known that. Thus, it is likely the roommate simply felt like his privacy had been invaded and was upset. But to Joshua, his roommate's leaving felt like this person, this individual he had thought was his friend, was saying he would not stand by him. It was deeply painful.

I was at YU when a gay student ran for a position on student council, and I saw the posters put up with quotes about homosexuality and bestiality. (I also saw fellow students tear them down.) I was Editor in Chief of The Observer when Dr. Ladin came out as transgender. I and my staff covered her story. It is an issue of the newspaper of which I remain proud. We had an interview with Dr. Ladin, articles about the halakhic process of transitioning, informational content on what gender dysphoria is, student responses, and interviews with other Orthodox or formerly Orthodox transgender individuals. I was at YU when the historic gay panel took place (I wrote the transcript).

I thought we had gotten past this. I thought our community understood. But it appears the same message needs to be repeated once again. Here it is:

It is entirely possible to be a halakhic Jew who believes certain actions (actions, NOT people) are forbidden according to the law and still- STILL- remain loving, respectful and kind. To understand is not to condone.

A Jewish Orthodox LGBTQ+ individual faces immense struggle. But it is up to God to judge-  not us. Our job is to respect the person, to be kind to them, to reach out to them, to always act out of love. And, of course, to remember that this person is keeping many more mitzvot than they may be transgressing (assuming they are even acting upon their identity.)

So how do we fix it? How do we create an environment where people would not laugh at Ben Shapiro's jokes targeted at transgender individuals? How do we raise kind children? Among other things, we need to provide them with information.

I believe that every Jewish day school should have a class that addresses Contemporary Topics and/or Evaded Issues. (Full disclosure: I teach this class!) I think it is essential that students are actually taught the sources on homosexuality and/or transitioning when one is trans. They should see exactly what the halakha says. And then they should also be taught facts. They should know medical facts about what doctors currently believe it means when one is gay or trans. They should be given knowledge and they should be taught compassion.

We are alienating individuals from the Orthodox community. We are going to lose them. Some of these individuals are our best and brightest minds (this young man went to Yale, which should demonstrate something in itself). And yet, if we continue as we have been, we are going to make our gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans children leave Judaism (certainly Orthodox Judaism).

I am not saying you need to approve or condone every behavior or action. But your qualms, if you have them, should be totally motivated by halakhic adherence, not by personal antipathy, ignorance or disgust. You must act and speak with the greatest kindness. If there is something you cannot do because God has forbidden you to do it, the attitude must be one of sorrow. I wish I could tell you this is permitted, but I can't...and I know it pains you...and it pains me, too. I feel your hurt and I am sorry for it. I wish I could change it. LGBTQ individuals comprise our students, friends and family members. We must find a way to keep them with us. The loss we face from their defection- the splintering families, the weakened community, this creation of "us" vs. "them" to our detriment-  is too great.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

My 28th Birthday Masquerade

I was feeling a bit sad about the things I felt I have not yet accomplished at this point in my life, but then my father pointed out that this year is my כח birthday. כח stands for strength and potential. So perhaps a better perspective would be to consider what I may yet do as opposed to what I have not yet done.

This Birthday Masquerade, the theme is love. But not just the flaring, sudden rush of romantic passion or infatuation. No, the theme this year is the quiet love, the love that finds itself winding around one's heart like shoots emerging from a newly planted tree, but has its roots deep in the earth. It can be love of any type- that of sister for brother, mother to child, parent to child, and of course, romantic love as well.

You are invited, this year, to a sleepy hollow in a beautiful forest. The trees stretch tall and proud, their leafy tops reaching for the sky. Shafts of sunlight sweep across the forest glade. Sticks and rocks litter the earth, and springy grass grows, pleasant underfoot. Herbs grow here as well- mint, basil, thyme and others that have healing properties. This year, we embrace nature in all its wildness while we understand its capacity to nurture and endure.

The refreshments are as you might expect- roasted wild mushrooms, crisp, tart apples, purple and orange carrots, pure water sipped from a nearby spring. Your plates are made of bark, your napkins formed of golden leaves. As party favors, I give you all crystalline branches of wood, having stolen the idea from Lena in the "Twelve Dancing Princesses." You may wear this wood as a brooch, a tie-pin or some other adornment. It is up to you!

This year, my dress is inspired by both druids and the fae. I wear long, flowing robes of hunter green edged with silver trim. Beneath the robes, a linen shift is visible, colored pale green. My feet are bare. A crown of stars rests on my head. My hair is long and tumbles past my shoulders. In my hand, I carry a slim wooden staff- whether to work magic or find water with, none yet know.

I bless you this year with the gift of deep, everlasting love. It may come in many forms- take the one that is most needed.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

shout it from the rooftops!

My best friend
Yair Shahak
just tied for first place
in the International Bible Contest (Chidon HaTanach)
with the Israeli contestant.

Yair has always been an incredible scholar, musician, artist, linguist...the list goes on...and it's so nice to see him being recognized. Incidentally, his wife Yaelle Frohlich is also pretty incredible (she actually was also a competitor in the Chidon, although the other Canadian contestant advanced). But she's a scholar, historian and incredible person in her own right! 

(And all the bragging rights *smirk*) 

Thursday, December 01, 2016

The Purpose of Jewish Education: Transformation Through Meaning

Recently, Dr. David Bryfman proposed that the purpose of Jewish education ought to be to empower people to "thrive in today's world." He followed that sentence with "For Jewish education to be successful, it must hold at its core the mission to make people happy." He then qualifies:
"Not ‘happy’ in the smiley or laughing sense of the word, although the world surely needs a whole lot more of both these days. But ‘happy’ as in fulfilled; enabling young people to flourish by helping students feel like they are putting forth the best version of themselves."
 I fundamentally disagree with Dr. Bryfman's view and would like to propose an alternative approach.
The purpose of Jewish education should be to transform individuals through making them aware of the meaning in and of their lives.
This may be what Bryfman intended when he talked about happiness as fulfillment or as enabling young people to present the best version of themselves. Additionally, he indicated that Jewish education should enable individuals to answer existential questions such as:

  • Who am I?
  • Where do I fit in this world? 
  • How can I live a more fulfilling life?
  • How can I make the world a better place? 

I would agree that personal fulfillment and identity creation are important. But I do not agree with the idea that these are the ultimate goals and that in order to achieve them, Judaism should be marketed to people based on what appeals to them. I do not agree with a learner-centered focus in the way that Bryfman suggests it. Bryfman believes that a learner-centered focus involves appealing to individuals with the Jewish traditions that will be most meaningful and valuable to them as opposed to trying to transmit an entire canon of Jewish practice. (Examples from his article: "For some, it could be that the concept of Shabbat signals a welcome break from the frenetic pace of everyday life. For others, it will be when a connection to Israel offers a deeper relationship to one’s heritage or people. Or perhaps it could be when Jewish teachings offer confidence to respond to the demands, stresses, frustrations and even tragedies that one encounters in life.") I would agree that sharing what is immediately valuable to a Jewish individual is a starting point but it is by no means an end point or an end goal.

I am reminded of a scene in the Harry Potter series. Sirius Black is able to keep sane while at Azkaban, a feat few others can achieve. He is surrounded by Dementors who suck every happy thought out of a person. So what is it that sets him apart? Why can he stay sane? He explains:
"I think the only reason I never lost my mind is that I knew I was innocent. That wasn't a happy thought, so the dementors couldn't suck it out of me...but it kept me sane and knowing who I am...helped me keep my powers." 
Knowing the truth is what keeps Sirius grounded. It isn't happiness or personal fulfillment that saves him- it's meaning. Judaism is not about helping people thrive solely in today's world. Today's world is very self-centered. We perform our lives for social media. Happiness tends to be about hedonism and personal pleasure. Granted, there are certain individuals who will find their deepest happiness in helping others, but ask your typical teenager and they will talk to you about how materialism (having the newest iPhone etc) is what makes them happy. Even in Bryfman's piece, he talks about the goal being ensuring that individuals are personally "fulfilled." It is, once more, about the self. I disagree with that approach. No, happiness is not the solution. Judaism is about helping people find meaning in their lives, being inspired by the heroes and heroines of Jewish text and determining how to transform the self in order to be more like them. It is not about the self, fulfilled. It is about the self even when that self is unfulfilled. It is about that self when that self is struggling. There will be many occasions in life where one will not be happy, but a true grasp of one's Judaism will assist that person in surviving the seemingly insurmountable challenge. Judaism offers a connection with God, a connection with incredible characters, and blueprints of how to deal with tremendous challenge and pain. This is what will assist an individual in the invariable ups and downs of life.

Judaism is larger than self. It is, as Rabbi Soloveitchik once explained, not a panacea but more of a Pandora's box. Being Jewish means asking questions and struggling with man and God (the meaning of the word Israel). It is not about ourselves on a journey to fulfillment. Moses was not fulfilled when he died within sight of the Land, forbidden to enter. Saul was not fulfilled when he was told David would take his throne. Jeremiah was not fulfilled when he was appointed a prophet, chosen by God for a difficult mission. Judaism is about meaning and the kind of meaning that is so important that personal fulfillment becomes secondary. It is about ourselves on a journey to find meaning, meaning that will influence who we should strive to become, not who we are today.

Happiness is a low bar to set. Judaism should be about transforming individuals, meeting them at first by offering what is of immediate interest, but making a long term goal of allowing people to access the teachings that speak to what must be accomplished. This should refer to growth both in oneself and in the world at large. No, Judaism should not be made to cater to one's personal beliefs about what will make one happy or fulfilled. Rather, the individual should shift in accordance to the questions posed to them by the Jewish tradition.

Friday, November 25, 2016


I'm happy to say I've been reading a lot lately. Most of my reading takes the form of audiobooks. I love that I now enjoy washing dishes, folding laundry and mopping floors-because that's my time to read! In the past week, I've read Nutshell by Ian McEwan, Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty, Loner by Teddy Wayne and One True Loves by Taylor Jenkins Reid. All of them were fascinating in very different ways.

Nutshell was a take on Hamlet, with Claude and Trudy (as stand-ins for Claudius and Gertrude) plotting to commit murder in order to be together. But the perspective from which it was told was unlike any other.

Big Little Lies helped me understand why an affluent woman would stay with a physically abusive man. The story was seriocomic and so much of it rang true (the in-fighting between kindergarten mums could have been set in the Five Towns) but the deeper message was excellent. I watched the trailer for the HBO series and it bears little resemblance to the fleshed-out, entertaining but fully human characters in the book.

Loner was terrifying and dragged me down into the world of T.J. Lane and Elliot Rodger. I realized that young people who are remorseless are the most disturbing type of villain. As an astute friend noted (Lightman), I expect the young to be good, impressionable, desirous of changing the world for the better. When killers are young, it seems worse.

I finished One True Loves most recently so that's the one that's still on my mind. The premise of the book is far-fetched. (A woman marries a man who is lost at sea and presumed dead. In time, she moves on, dates another man and becomes engaged. Then the first man- her husband- returns. She's now faced with an impossible choice.) Despite this, and the extremely quick resolution- unlikely to occur in real life-it had some wonderful ideas and quotes that I would like to write down here so that I can return to them.

1. "You're supposed to be Penelope. You're supposed to knit the shroud day in and day out and stay up every night unraveling it to keep the suitors at bay. You're not supposed to have a life of your own, needs of your own. You're not supposed to love again. But I did. That's exactly what I did."

2. "There is other love out there for me. But it's different. It isn't this. It isn't this exact love. It's better and it's worse. But I guess that's sort of the point of love between two people- you can't re-create it. Every time you love, everyone you love, the love is different. You're different in it."

I liked those concepts. I think many people assume that they're only supposed to love once, and I think it's insightful to note that the people we are tend to change and shift in accordance with the people we love (likely for better and for worse). Or perhaps- who we are at the time dictates who we love.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

On Identity & Integrity: Jean Valjean & Moses

The books that call to me like siren songs are those that wrestle with the question of identity. Is Hamlet mad or a consummate actor? Can Proctor live if he must sign his name to lies? Who would the Phantom have been if his genius had been respected, his skeletal face ignored? Why does the intelligent Anna Karenina fall for the foolish cad Vronsky? Does McMurphy care more for himself or for the plight of others? I seek to discover what it is in each character that makes them deeply human, as this is how I learn to love them.

Perhaps one of the most powerful moments in biblical literature occurs when Moses, adoptive son of Pharoah's daughter, chooses to ally himself with his Hebrew brethren. In that climactic moment, Moses must choose: is he a Hebrew or an Egyptian? Does he care solely for himself or also for others? Is he willing to risk his wealth, status, inheritance and very life for the sake of a man he does not know?

I realized tonight that Moses' choice is echoed in the famous work Les Miserables. In this work convict Jean Valjean escapes and reforms himself, becoming mayor of a city and enabling its inhabitants to live well and justly. Unfortunately, legalistic inspector Javert will not give up his search for the escaped convict. Through an accident of fate, a different man is assumed to be Valjean, and will be tried and sentenced in his place. Knowing this, the real Valjean must determine whether he has a moral obligation to expose himself and suffer the consequences of telling the truth. Originally, in the book, Victor Hugo portrays Jean Valjean's dilemma as follows:
There was a moment when he reflected on the future. Denounce himself, great God! Deliver himself up! With immense despair he faced all that he should be obliged to leave, all that he should be obliged to take up once more. He should have to bid farewell to that existence which was so good, so pure, so radiant, to the respect of all, to honor, to liberty. He should never more stroll in the fields; he should never more hear the birds sing in the month of May; he should never more bestow alms on the little children; he should never more experience the sweetness of having glances of gratitude and love fixed upon him; he should quit that house which he had built, that little chamber! Everything seemed charming to him at that moment. Never again should he read those books; never more should he write on that little table of white wood; his old portress, the only servant whom he kept, would never more bring him his coffee in the morning. Great God! instead of that, the convict gang, the iron necklet, the red waistcoat, the chain on his ankle, fatigue, the cell, the camp bed all those horrors which he knew so well! At his age, after having been what he was! If he were only young again! but to be addressed in his old age as “thou” by any one who pleased; to be searched by the convict-guard; to receive the galley-sergeant’s cudgellings; to wear iron-bound shoes on his bare feet; to have to stretch out his leg night and morning to the hammer of the roundsman who visits the gang; to submit to the curiosity of strangers, who would be told: “That man yonder is the famous Jean Valjean, who was mayor of M. sur M.”; and at night, dripping with perspiration, overwhelmed with lassitude, their green caps drawn over their eyes, to remount, two by two, the ladder staircase of the galleys beneath the sergeant’s whip. Oh, what misery! Can destiny, then, be as malicious as an intelligent being, and become as monstrous as the human heart? 
And do what he would, he always fell back upon the heartrending dilemma which lay at the foundation of his reverie: “Should he remain in paradise and become a demon? Should he return to hell and become an angel?” 
What was to be done? Great God! what was to be done?
In the musical adaptation, Valjean's conflict is portrayed within the moving song "Who Am I?"

The entire song is powerful, but the part which echoes Moses' choice is this:

Who am I?
Can I condemn this man to slavery
Pretend I do not see his agony
This innocent who bears my face
Who goes to judgement in my place

Who am I?

It is precisely this question with which Moses struggles. At his core, who is he? What does he stand for? What are his values? Can he choose passivity even if not apathy? Can he choose the life he has known since he was weaned or must he throw it all away due to an ideal? Those of us who grow up with the story as children fail to see the tremendous moral struggle with which Moses engages. He looks "this way and that way" - determining who he is. At his core, is he Egyptian or Hebrew? Is he Jean Valjean or Monsieur Madeleine?

And in the end, as we know, Moses determines that he is a Hebrew. He kills the Egyptian. 

When Valjean speaks to Marius towards the end of the novel, he tells him: "You ask why I speak? I am neither denounced, nor pursued, nor tracked, you say. Yes! I am denounced! yes! I am tracked! By whom? By myself. It is I who bar the passage to myself, and I drag myself, and I push myself, and I arrest myself, and I execute myself, and when one holds oneself, one is firmly held."

Valjean and Moses are both men of integrity. Their identity is constructed based on their integrity. They cannot lie. They are not men of words, able to dissemble and perform in a politically staged manner for the sake of their own benefit- or even the benefit of others. In the same manner that Valjean considers the welfare of the city that depends on him, Moses could have waited, biding his time until (perhaps) he would become monarch, resolving to change the working conditions of the Hebrews at that point. But both of them realize this would be wrong. There is a moment of very real crisis and the response must be now- one cannot wait.

To live a meaningful life is to embrace the message of Moses & Valjean. Live with integrity. Be willing to do what is right, no matter the cost. Construct an identity based on core values. And recognize that one must aspire to live a life where one drags oneself, pushes oneself, arrests oneself and executes oneself. One who lives thusly does not fear death.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

On Trump, Scare Rhetoric & Civil Discourse

It's lucky I'm a liberal, because otherwise I would be having a pretty hard time at Northwestern.

It's de rigueur for students to be distraught over the outcome of the election. On the one hand, I appreciate that Donald Trump is a morally repugnant, unpleasant man. On the other hand, it's become increasingly clear that people create their own narrative of events and stick to it, ignoring evidence in favor of their personal flavor of frustration.

Donald Trump is already walking back many of his statements. Where before, he declared that he would deport all illegal immigrants, he is now limiting his plan to deporting those with criminal records. Where before, he said that one of his first acts in office would be to overturn Obamacare, he now wants to keep the clauses that allow children to stay on their parents' health insurance into their 20s and which forbid insurance companies from denying coverage due to preexisting conditions. Where before, he maligned Obama and referred to him in insulting ways, he is now willing to be tutored by Obama because he has been humbled by the realization that he does not actually understand the scope of the presidency.

During the third presidential debate, Hillary Clinton decried Trump's "scare rhetoric" and alarmist tactics when it came to his factually incorrect description of partial birth abortion. I think the same point can be made about current responses to Trump. Too many news outlets have been engaging in alarmist scare rhetoric, such that I even have liberal friends who are comparing the man to Hitler. I do not like Trump as a human being; he has chosen to be or don a persona that is misogynist, sexist and (intentionally or unintentionally) racist. Despite this, he is not Hitler. He has no plans of perpetrating mass genocide. To suggest otherwise is to enter the theater of the absurd.

There does appear to have been a rise in hate crimes due to people who think they know what Trump stands for and who believe themselves to be empowered by Trump. I question whether one can really hold Trump directly responsible for this; that seems similar to holding Eminem or other recording artists responsible for individuals who perpetrate crimes based on their music. (Of course, one could argue that someone running for such a public office as President bears more responsibility for his language than a recording artist.) I agree that it would behoove Trump to distance himself from these groups and condemn the hate crimes in very strong language, and thus far, he has not done that. This is certainly problematic.

I am disturbed by language in our media (especially media that skews liberal) that attacks individuals, not based on the merits, but based on who they are. For example, Ben Carson has been tipped to become the Secretary of Education. An explanation based on the merits would argue that Ben Carson has absolutely no qualifications for this position. Just because one has been educated in this country, created a foundation to hand out scholarships and has served as a prominent surgeon does not an educator make. An educator would be someone who has really thought about how public, private and charter schools are being run today, who understands policy issues, funding issues, cultural and racial issues and who has a plan to better our schools overall. An educator would be someone willing to listen to individuals across all viewpoints in an effort to lead with humility.

But the articles I am reading about Carson do not make these simple, sensible arguments. Instead, they talk about him as a creationist, deriding him for his religious views. People assume that because he is religious, he must also be ignorant. Because he believes in creation, it must mean that he wants all children in all public schools to be taught mythology rather than scientific reality. Now, it's possible that Carson has indeed stated this publicly and that I have just missed it. In that case, I would be troubled, as public schools must respect the separation between church and state. But until I see this stated publicly, Carson ought to be critiqued on the merits, and not because liberals cannot stand that he believes in God.

Our society as a whole would benefit from more civil discourse. Civil discourse would mean that liberals would not assume condescendingly that people who are religious only are that way due to a lack of exposure to other beliefs and ways of being. They would not assume that their values are the only correct values. It would also mean conservatives would not paint all liberals as out to corrupt their children. Our society is becoming increasingly black and white, and our news outlets are losing the ability to construct nuanced pieces. It's much easier for two sides to stand up and shout at one another than it is for the two to come together and truly hear one another. Hearing means reserving judgment and looking at the other person as a fellow human being.

It is important for us to stand up for fellow humans if they are being attacked or harmed. Thus, I applaud various initiatives that seek to make humans feel safe- such as wearing a safety pin or trying to create more camaraderie in the world. I disagree with continuing the divisive rhetoric by promoting protests, riots or ridiculous hashtags such as #NotMyPresident. You do not have to agree with Trump's values, nor do you have to respect him, to be governed by him. It is imperative that you recognize that this is not Syria. We are not directly at risk from ISIS or Boko Haram. We do not (for the most part) experience famine or water crises. There are people out there in the world who are experiencing actual disasters and Donald Trump as president is not one of these. He is foolish and possibly incompetent, maybe even dangerously so, but luckily we have a system of checks and balances in place that will prevent him from doing too much harm. If he does something unconstitutional, we have the ability to impeach him. Trump is hemmed in by laws and statutes. Thus, rather than grieving that people in the world do not share your values, the time has come to let those values shine- in a positive way. Give blood. Perform random acts of kindness. Volunteer your time with a worthy organization. Bring more good into the world. If you act like the kind of person others would want to become, they will come to you and ask to learn from you. This is the way to influence others and win respect.

If Trump begins to act in a way that directly threatens others, that will be the time to defend those individuals' human rights. But right now, it's time to be constructive, not destructive. As Mad-Eye Moody would say, "Constant vigilance!" Be watchful. Be ready. But in the meantime- actively work to be kind. Try to find what you have in common with someone who supports the candidate you did not vote for. Look for what is similar between you, not for what is different. If dialogue begins with love, it is far more powerful. Try to begin dialogues with love.