Thursday, May 28, 2015

Leap of Faith: An interview with Rabbi Gil Steinlauf
Last fall, Rabbi Gil Steinlauf of Adas Israel Synagogue sent an email to his congregation. He told them he was gay. (And it was good.)
By Randy Shulman on May 28, 2015

 Rabbi Gil Steinlauf – Photography by Todd Franson
“I’m not going to go on record as saying Moses was gay.”
Rabbi Gil Steinlauf says this with a laugh — he laughs often and warmly, it turns out — but he’s also quite serious in response to a reporter’s offhand remark that Moses could be viewed as history’s first gay activist.
“But the story of Moses is a kind of coming out story,” Steinlauf says. “He grew up as a Prince of Egypt in the house of Pharaoh, completely in the center of power. Yet, he was nursed by his Israelite mother, so he knew that he had this secret identity. He lived in inner-conflict over those two worlds, those two identities of himself, until he finally came to a head when he killed an Egyptian who was oppressing an Israelite, and ran away. He tried to hide until God called him back. And then he spoke on behalf of his people.
“So I always make the argument that Moses has a kind of queer coming-out parallel in his life story, and that’s a fundamental motivational factor for his ability to recognize the suffering of his people and to stand up to Pharaoh, because of his ability to overcome his own limitations and insecurities and his shame of who he was.”
The same could be said for Rabbi Steinlauf who, in an act of courage last October, sent an email to his congregation of more than 1,500 families at Adas Israel, the storied Conservative synagogue that presides over the Cleveland Park neighborhood of Washington, D.C., and includes Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elana Kagan among its worshipers. In the email, Steinlauf informed his congregation that he, in fact, was gay and that he and his wife of 20 years, Batya, with whom he has three teenage children, would be divorcing.
The backlash could have been significant for the 46-year-old Steinlauf. It wasn’t. The news spread like wildfire after the Washington Post reported it. The congregation heralded their support. And then, things went back to business-as-usual.
 “It’s not that Adas has always been so utopian,” says Steinlauf. “As recently as maybe 15 years ago — this was before my time — there were huge fights on the Board of Directors about whether or not it’s appropriate to extend family memberships to gay families and gay couples. There was vehement opposition on either side of the debate.”
Steinlauf, a handsome man with the kind of calm, learned demeanor one expects from a Rabbi, hails from Long Island, where he was raised in “a very sort of high strung New York Jewish” way. His family wasn’t particularly observant, but they were very active in the Jewish community.
“We were very ethnically Jewish,” he says. “There’s an expression — ‘Bagels and lox Jews.’ Jewish food, Yiddish everywhere, always thinking about Israel and talking about Jewish issues around the world. We didn’t go to synagogue regularly but there was always a sense of Yiddishkeit around.”
As a boy, Steinlauf “was very interested in religion and thinking about God and all those things.” Though his family were members of a Reform congregation, he made them “join a Conservative synagogue, because I realized that the kids who went to the Conservative Synagogue were actually learning things that I wasn’t learning in my Reform temple. They switched for my sake.”
After graduating from Princeton, his interest in Judaism, in learning, in teaching, in spiritual introspection led him to Rabbinical school, where he spent six years training. He was an assistant Rabbi for three years in Columbus, Ohio, and then spent seven years at Temple Israel in Ridgewood, New Jersey, “right outside Manhattan.”
Then came the opportunity to lead Adas Israel, where he’s been since 2008.
“I was pretty honest with them,” he says. “I told them that I wanted to take it in a direction of really making it relevant and diverse and exciting in ways that they hadn’t, bringing conversations into the Synagogue that they’ve never had here in this context. And I would like to believe that’s why they hired me.”
Of course, the conversation he eventually brought proved to be a test — one that the synagogue passed magnificently, in a way that all other synagogues now have their eye on what has occurred. On a more active level, Adas Israel will, for the first time in its history, have a contingent in this year’s Capital Pride Parade on June 13, and Steinlauf has started a LGBT Torah study group, open to not just just Adas Israel members, but anyone who cares to partake.
“Adas Israel has a long-standing reputation of being a synagogue that can push the envelope in the Conservative movement,” he says. “It certainly is continuing in that tradition.”
Like so many, Steinlauf felt from an early age that he might be gay. But he kept those feelings tamped down, pushed to the side. “That couldn’t be who I am,” was a constant refrain in his head. His two decade marriage to Batya was as profound and meaningful as any other, a point he stresses throughout a two-and-a-half hour conversation — and beyond.
“I have been thinking about one thing I said in the interview, and I’m a bit concerned,” he wrote in an email in the days following our conversation. “I talked about how my ‘leap of faith’ involved realizing that it was ultimately about how I love. I’m concerned that it might come across as suggesting in some fashion that my love for my wife of 20 years was not real.
“In fact, my love for my wife was very real and complete. It’s critically important for me to ensure that there is no confusion about that. While my love for her was real and beautiful, I came to see that, as a gay man, I needed to love in a different way.”
METRO WEEKLY: For those readers who aren’t Jewish, or who may not have a clear notion of what a Rabbi is, can you give us a brief explanation?
RABBI GIL STEINLAUF: Unlike other religious traditions, a Rabbi is not considered a holy man or holy woman. The word Rabbi literally means “teacher.” And that’s really what I am. I’m a teacher of Torah, a teacher of the Jewish tradition. We are pulpit clergy, but the role that Rabbis play in modern American Jewish congregational settings is that we are setting the vision and goal of a congregational community. We rule on matters of Jewish law, and what applies and what doesn’t apply in our own communities. Judaism is a legalistic tradition, so we have to be knowledgeable about Jewish law. There’s lots of pastoral work and, of course, preaching and teaching. It’s a very busy, very rich, very intense life, because we’re dealing with people in all moments of the life cycle, from birth through death.
MW: You say a Rabbi is not a holy person. But I was always under the impression they were. Doesn’t the Jewish religion have the the equivalent of the Pope?
STEINLAUF: [Laughs.] Are you kidding? Jews agreeing on who would be the Pope of the Jews? Can you imagine such a thing?
In different Jewish communities, there is the equivalent of a holy man. For example, the Chasidim — the black hat people — have their Rebbe. He’s more like a holy man. Rebbes are like gurus. Rebbes have Chasidim who orbit around them and drink in their words. They can “see into your soul,” and when they give you a blessing, it’s life-altering. But in general and traditionally, Rabbis are just particularly learned Jewish people.
MW: The synagogue you oversee is nationally prominent.
STEINLAUF: Adas Israel is an historic congregation. It’s 150 years old — President Ulysses S. Grant was at the founding ceremony. It has a major presence not only in Washington, D.C. but in the American Jewish community because it’s a solid anchor in the Conservative movement in the Jewish world. So it’s a big and important place. When this job opened up and I applied, I didn’t think I was really going to get it. It was an amazing opportunity for me, because it’s a platform where you can really make a difference. A lot of the members here are people in leadership in the government and in think tanks and journalists who are influencing the tide of our society.
MW: How have you altered the synagogue’s course since coming here?
STEINLAUF: I like to put it this way: In the 21st century everything’s changing. How we make meaning, how we form our identities, how we connect our sense of who we are, and what we’re doing in life to a bigger picture, is different from our parents’ and grandparents’ generations. My message to this congregation has been that we can’t be operating in this congregation like it’s 1965 anymore, because we’re going to become absolutely irrelevant in 5, 10, 15 years.
“I believe that to be Jewish is a form of being queer. When you think about the role of the Jewish people throughout history, we have always never really fit in.”
MW: How would you describe the atmosphere here in the years before it changed.
STEINLAUF: It has always been a very strong, powerful Synagogue. I would say it was much more in keeping with more conventional expectations of synagogues. So there were services, but the style of the services was very formal, very decorous. If there’s a kid crying in the service now, I think that’s just terrific, whereas a couple of decades ago, the service would stop and they would give dirty looks until the parents took the kid out.
The idea is to be very progressive. I’m interested in “disruptive innovation.” The grand experiment I’m working on in this congregation is what happens if you take one of the established institutions in American Judaism — the synagogue — and do from within new things that deliberately cut against the grain of expectation. You’re going to automatically discomfit people, you’re automatically raising anxiety levels, but in that creative tension new kinds of things can happen that people haven’t had the opportunity to experience before.
MW: Why so much change?
STEINLAUF: I’m doing this because I really believe that no matter what happens, no matter what we say, synagogues will always be the real centerpiece of the American Jewish experience. That no matter how disaffected or alienated a lot of Jewish people might be in our day, if they’re ever going to inquire about their own Jewish identity, they’re going to look to synagogues to provide something. And if synagogues meet the conventional expectations of what people grew up with, they’re going to walk right out the door again. So it has to be a very, very different kind of experience.
That said — and I have to say this, it’s important — Adas is a multi-generational synagogue. The older generations here are less comfortable with some of these innovations. So it is very important we still have conventional features so that everybody feels comfortable. The beauty of working in a very, very big and multifaceted urban congregation is that you can have it all.
MW: You’re Conservative. Do you look at the Reform movement, with its relaxed stance, as somehow — there’s no good way to phrase this —
STEINLAUF: Less than?
MW: Yes. Less than.
STEINLAUF: No, I don’t. Because I’m inherently a pluralist — my world view is diversity. There’s an expression in the Rabbinic literature: “These and these are the words of Torah.” It means there’s multiple opinions on everything. If you open up any page of Talmud, the Rabbis are arguing. And what’s interesting is, they always preserve both sides of the argument, even though we actually only follow one. Why? Because the other opinion matters, too.
One of the most beautiful and most powerful insights that Judaism has that other traditions don’t have as strongly, unfortunately, is that there’s an inherent diversity of perspective and interpretation to what the tradition means. So I inherently respect my Reform colleagues as having a particular understanding and take on what Judaism and the Torah is all about. As I also respect my Orthodox colleagues.
MW: I’ve always looked at Judaism as a religion but also as a culture. I probably fall on the more cultural side these days.
STEINLAUF: A lot of people who aren’t Jewish have trouble grasping this, but being Jewish is only in part a religion. In Judaism, we call ourselves “a people.” And our people is rich and varied and diverse and textured. There are observant Jewish people and there are secular Jews, but one of the things we all inherently understand is that we’re all Jewish.
I see tremendous parallels between the uniquely Jewish experience in the world and in history and the experience of being queer. I believe that to be Jewish is a form of being queer. When you think about the role of the Jewish people throughout history, we have always never really fit in. We have always been kind of on the outside of mainstream civilization — on the outside, and yet interestingly, right in the middle of it at the same time. One foot in and one foot out. That’s sort of what it feels like to be Jewish. It’s kind of also what it feels like to be gay. We’re completely a part of the world that we live in, and yet there something about us that’s fundamentally “other.” And to be Jewish is to be fundamentally “other,” as well.
Similar to being queer, to be Jewish is a source of anxiety for other people who don’t understand us. To be Jewish is to be a source of persecution and attack and oppression from those who project their nightmares onto us because we look like them, we might even dress like them, but then we’re somehow “other-fied.” And so, my journey of being gay, of being closeted, and then coming out has been deeply influential on my path as a Jew, on my path as a Rabbi, on my vision of Judaism and how Judaism can evolve in the 21st century. And all of that has been deeply formed by my insight and experience of being gay.
MW: Well, let’s go there. Talk about about your life before coming out. You were married, you had kids.
STEINLAUF: So I met my wife, Batya, in Rabbinical school. She’s a Rabbi, too. We were best friends and truly fell in love. We got married and had a beautiful marriage for 20 years together and had a really, really wonderful, close-knit family — two girls and a boy.
MW: But…
STEINLAUF: But I always knew from my childhood that I was always attracted to the same gender. That was always there. I didn’t act on it. And, I don’t know, maybe that attributed to my ability to, you know, to live this life in this hetero-normal existence, because it wasn’t in direct contrast to other kinds of experiences I’ve had. I just knew that these were very, very real desires and dimensions of myself that I disassociated from.
MW: Was Batya aware of your internal struggles?
STEINLAUF: She always knew I struggled with things. But she also knew that our marriage was very real in every way and that we loved each other.
“I only got one seriously nasty e-mail out of a congregation of 1,500 families. It was written on a typewriter and it said, ‘You took this job under false pretenses and you must resign immediately.’”
MW: How did you absolutely know you were gay? If you’d never acted on it, even before the marriage…
STEINLAUF: I don’t have a good answer for that. I just knew. I guess because I have always been so introspective and have been obsessed with the truth my entire life. Obsessed with it. I always felt there was a dissonance between how I was in the world and how I felt inside. I could never make those things match.
MW: Was there a catalyst to make those things match? Something that triggered it?
STEINLAUF: My realization actually happened — this is telling — three years ago on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It’s the time Jews are supposed to be spiritually naked before God. And with my personality, I get into profound introspection and have been taking stock of my life since I came to Washington of what’s missing, what’s wrong. I woke up that morning of Yom Kippur and it was literally waking up in the morning and realizing, “Oh, this is who I am.” That was a completely new concept for me. I’d never, never allowed myself to own it like that before. I had freaked out about it all the time. I worried about it all the time. I pushed it away all the time. But never on every level of my being was I able to simply say, “Oh, this is who I am.” And that’s the beginning and the end of the story.

Rabbi Gil Steinlauf – Photography by Todd Franson
MW: But what caused that realization?
STEINLAUF: I think I was ready. I was ready. Some of us are ready when we’re 18, and some of us when we’re 43 years old. Suddenly 43 years of shame dropped away. It really dropped away.
MW: How did Batya take it?
STEINLAUF: One of the reasons why I fell in love with her is that there is absolutely nothing phony about that woman. She says it like it is — to a fault sometimes. She had fundamental trust in me in the sense that I was always 100 percent honest with her to the extent that I knew how to be honest with myself. So we had discussions and over the course of three years came to the decision we would have to get divorced. We take the idea of marriage very, very, very seriously, and I wasn’t going to try experiences while still married. So if I’m gay, the marriage would have to end. We struggled for three years up till that point, getting to the precipice, then backing off and then to the precipice and then finally jumping off. It was a leap of faith.
MW: That’s a remarkable leap of faith because you might have found it wasn’t for you.
STEINLAUF: That occurred to me. It totally occurred to me. What if this whole thing is a total mishegas, as we say? When I was a kid in college, I would always wonder to my friends, “What if I’m gay?” I would literally say this to people because I was such a neurotic Long Island kid. I used to freak out about everything, and they were like, “No, you don’t have cancer. No, you’re not dying. No, you’re not gay.” So I relegated my gayness to just another neurosis. And when this became who I am, it was such an alignment of the stars, that it felt absolutely real and true, the seeking of this truth that was always out there suddenly was in here. It was a very spiritual experience for me. And in that reality, I was able to take this leap of faith. So now my wife and I are divorced, and I’m living as a gay man now.
MW: You didn’t have to do this. You could have remained married.
STEINLAUF: I wanted to. I tried. When I first had the euphoric realization that this is who I am, the intention I really set for myself is “I’m going to continue to be married this woman, I love my life, I love my wife, I love my whole everything.” I was very happy like this. With all these trappings. I wanted that. But once it’s out of the bag, you can’t stuff it back in again. I saw this as essentially the quality of my path in life. My path to God involves me being created in the image of God as a gay man in this way. So I couldn’t rectify the dissonance between that deep sense of who I am and the other aspects of my life that didn’t match with that anymore. It was truly agonizing, excruciating, those three years leading up to this.
MW: Was it worth it?
STEINLAUF: The act of owning those desires, the act of owning that as me, not other than me, was a tremendous healing in my life.
MW: It’s a pretty seismic event when a Rabbi at a synagogue of this size and this stature comes out. It becomes big news.
STEINLAUF: I honestly didn’t expect it to be as big a news story as it ended up being. I honestly expected something in the Washington Post about it, but I didn’t think it would get picked up in so many other papers. I didn’t anticipate that. I also didn’t expect literally the thousands of notes and e-mails I got from people around the world responding with incredible love and support. I mean, just overwhelming. People thanking me, men who had the courage to come out because they read the story, young people thanking me. I still can’t wrap my mind around it, actually.
MW: Does that say something about our world right now?
STEINLAUF: At the time, I joked that the thing that made news is the fact that it’s a non-story. Yeah, I came out, okay, there are lots of gay Rabbis. I came out at a conservative Synagogue, that’s a little unusual. I came out at a very big, prominent conservative Synagogue. That’s interesting. But the fact that there was no backlash, there was no drama within the Synagogue — that’s remarkable. And that’s the real statement about the times that we live in. That’s why it became a bigger story.
MW: Were you worried about backlash?
STEINLAUF: Sure. Up until the day that the story dropped, I really didn’t know what was going to happen. There are certainly people who aren’t comfortable with it, but we’re in a period of history where even people who have discomfort with it are smart enough not to make a big deal about their displeasure. I only got one seriously nasty e-mail out of a congregation of 1,500 families — one — and it was written by a long-time member. I believe he’s in his nineties. It was written on a typewriter and it said, “You took this job under false pretenses and you must resign immediately.” Which is really what the entire congregation would have said in his day, many, many decades ago. But, you know, I’m honestly amazed by the level of support here. Some of the older generation members here are some of my biggest supporters on this issue, interestingly.
MW: I have read some criticism from people who have claimed you should have just kept quiet and stayed in the marriage. How do you respond to that?
STEINLAUF: You know, honestly, because I love my wife and my children so much it became patently clear to me, completely crystal clear to me, that the way I can be the most loving to my wife and to my children was to end the marriage. Because if I stayed in the marriage, then it would have kept it from being a truly loving, very real marriage that it had been for 20 years into living a lie. And because I’m so profoundly focused on living a life of integrity and being in the truth, I couldn’t live with myself if I was living a lie. My wife would never have wanted me to live a lie, and I would have been a terrible father to my children if I’d been living a lie, because what kind of role model would I be if I had stayed in the lie? And frankly, what kind of Rabbi would I be in a congregation if I were a liar, pretending to be somebody who I’m not, just for the sake of holding on to whatever it is that people think I should have stayed in the marriage for. At some point, integrity matters most in leadership and in being a mensch. That’s the beginning of everything else. If we don’t have our own integrity as human beings then in what way can we truly be ethical in any other way?
“We have unbelievable amounts of societal shifting to do. We’re still a deeply racist country. And I think there’s going to be deep homophobia for a long time to come in our society.”
MW: The people who are critical are presupposing that you were hiding it all along.
STEINLAUF: Right. That’s the one thing that’s very difficult for some people to understand — and I don’t blame people for having a hard time understanding this. But I do want it to be said that you know, believe it or not, I had a real marriage to a woman. I really did. And I know that’s incredibly difficult for people to hold on to, but that’s actually what happened and yes, that process of coming to terms with myself meant that everything that we honored about that marriage, in order to honor it, meant that marriage had to end.
Divorce is horrible and divorce is painful and I’m not going to candy-coat this. Ending a marriage is a horrific loss and it’s very, very painful for my kids and for my wife and for me. None of us would have chosen this, you know? Being gay is not a choice. And so this is how it had to be and so they had to struggle with this. Are they thrilled with all of this? That I’m getting publicity for being gay, that the gay thing is responsible for the breakup of the family that we had as we knew it? It’s a tragic loss for my family and what I can say is that I am very grateful we’re going through this loss together. My wife and I are best friends. And that’s not going to change. We consider each other to be family no matter what. And we’re going to be family forever. I hope that she remarries and I hope that she has a wonderful life that moves forward. But we do consider ourselves to be family still. This is not a bitter divorce on any level.
MW: She sounds remarkable.
STEINLAUF: She is a remarkable human being. She really, really is. I’m very, very lucky. I’m lucky on so many levels I can’t even begin…. Really, I get teary-eyed sometimes thinking that I just can’t believe how well this has gone considering that this has been my ultimate nightmare for my whole life, imagining “I hope I don’t end up gay,” like that’s the worst death sentence. Look, I was a teenager in the ’80s. I grew up during the era of AIDS. And if I had any association with being gay when I was a kid growing up, it was being alone and isolated and rejected and unlovable. That’s how I connected those ideas together in my head, which I think is what led me toward a life of living in the closest in the way that I did. So to suddenly be where I am now, and to have the world not only be okay with it, but just the unbelievable degree of support, is beyond anything I could have imagined.
MW: Changing topics. What do you make of the recent rise of anti-Semitism in Europe?
STEINLAUF: There’s this cancer in western society which is anti-Semitism. And what that makes me think of in our context, of what we’re talking about here, is what I think is a very powerful connection between the Jewish people and gay people. Because the immediate reactiveness of going back to anti-Semitism and hatred of Jews in times of fear, in times of insecurity, and thinking that the Jews are going to undermine everything we live for and stand for means that the role the Jews have played for thousands of years that we’ve been queer.
We’ve been a queer people in all the ways that we take concept of “queer” writ large — that we discomfit, we make people face aspects of themselves that they’re terrified of facing about themselves. We give people the creeps because we do things that look like them but then we’re very different somehow in ways they can’t understand, that seem mysterious. In all of those ways, the Jewish people and gay people are on a shared path. I think that’s a very important place where we can actually learn from each other and learn from our collective wisdom from each other about how to not react with fear and mistrust to the world, because we’re all queer but rather in a way that’s compassionate and seeking further justice.
MW: Shouldn’t the anti-Semitism be a cautionary tale for gays as well?
STEINLAUF: It most certainly is. Thank God that this country is progressing so mind-bogglingly well right now when it comes to anti-discrimination for gay people but at the same time, when you look at what’s happening with Indiana and everything else in the American heartland and the Bible Belt, you know that a similar cancer exists — a societal cancer, that sense of deep-seated fear and mistrust of the other.
The deepest message of Judaism is you have to embrace the other. Don’t be afraid of the other. And that’s the great spiritual battle of our time. Do you reject the other, or do you embrace the other? We’re making great political strides in our society but that doesn’t mean our work is done. We have unbelievable amounts of societal shifting to do. Same thing with racism in this country. We’re still a deeply racist country. And I think there’s going to be deep homophobia for a long time to come in our society, which makes the kind of work that we have to do all the more important. There’s a famous line in [Jewish teachings] that goes, “You are not obligated to complete the task but neither are you free to stop working at it.” It’s a way of life. But you understand that the task we are doing is way bigger than us, way bigger than our lifetimes. You can’t give up working on it from generation to generation.
MW: And how are you working on it?
STEINLAUF: I’m starting simply. The fact that this is a mainstream establishment congregation in our Nation’s Capitol and there’s been widespread acceptance and that’s been the news story, that’s an important thing right there. The fact that other religious communities can look and see that this can happen and it can be not just okay but a celebration, that’s a very important message in our society to give. I’m not best served by being the “gay Rabbi,” but rather by being a Rabbi who is teaching my Torah, which is the Torah that I can teach based upon speaking from my heart and from my truest experience as a human being.
There’s this familiarity now in the congregation. If I’m in a class or I’m giving a sermon or having a discussion with the congregation about sort of a spiritual journey or how to respond to the times, I can simply say, “Well, you know, I’ve been through an extraordinary journey in my identity and this is what I’ve learned about what we need to do in order to face difficulty.” That’s something that gives weight and hopefully inspiration to people to be able to face whatever it is they need to face in their lives.
MW: I have to ask this. Since coming out, have you found any new romance?
STEINLAUF: Since I have come out, I have dated and I have met somebody very special. A nice Jewish boy.
MW: How does it feel?
STEINLAUF: I’ll answer as honestly as I possibly can. What I had constantly dismissed within myself as a hang-up, a neurosis, fill in the label, you know, I suddenly realized it was connected to my deepest capacity to love — and once you understand that about yourself, it even transcends the sexual thing. It’s in the capacity to love and in the way that one loves that becomes irrefutable. Yes, there a small voice in the back of my mind wondering, is this some horrible mistake? Am I going to completely regret this? Of course there was, of course there was. And what I can tell you now is this: I’m sure it wasn’t a mistake.

Adas Israel is located at 2850 Quebec St. NW. For more information on its services and programs, call 202-362-4433 or visit

Randy Shulman is Metro Weekly's Publisher and Editor-in-Chief. He can be reached at

Monday, May 4, 2015

Ruth Bader Ginsburg Just Taught the Most Important Torah of Our Time

Embracing Same-Sex Marriage is Modern, American—and Jewish

Ruth Bader Ginsburg says unions, once defined by gender dominance, are fundamentally changed. It’s time for the Jewish community to catch up.

The proceedings about same-sex marriage in the Supreme Court last Tuesday began on a tense note. I was there. Almost immediately, Justice Roberts asserted that we are talking not simply about expanding marriage to include same-sex couples, but about fundamentally redefining marriage in America. The term “millennia” was echoed around among the justices: Hasn’t marriage “for millennia” been defined as a union between a man and a woman? Who are we to suddenly change it? 
As a rabbi present for the deliberations, I found it remarkable that the justices seemed to speak of marriage in such binary terms. After all, in the Jewish tradition, we have a long view on “the millennia.” As I listened, I wished I could pass a note to the chief justices in order to point out that for millennia, polygamy was in fact the essential definition of marriage.  In Judaism, it wasn’t until about one thousand years ago that Rabbeinu Gershom famously enacted a ban on husbands taking multiple wives.
When Justice Bader Ginsburg joined in the conversation, her voice was quiet and the room palpably leaned forward to hear her insights.  And indeed, she didn’t disappoint. “Marriage today is not what it was under the common law tradition, under the civil law tradition,” she said. “[Same-sex couples] wouldn’t be asking for this relief if the law of marriage was what it was a millennium ago. I mean, it wasn’t possible. Same-sex unions would not have opted into the pattern of marriage, which was a relationship, a dominant and a subordinate relationship. Yes, it was marriage between a man and a woman, but the man decided where the couple would be domiciled; it was her obligation to follow him.  There was a change in the institution of marriage to make it egalitarian when it wasn’t egalitarian. And same-sex unions wouldn’t…fit into what marriage was once.”
As the blogger Ian Millhiser pointed out on the Think Progress, Bader Ginsburg meant that same-sex marriages were inconceivable when marriage was defined by gender roles that assert male dominance. By removing patriarchy from marriage, the inherent egalitarianism of same-sex marriage becomes an undeniable possibility.
Sitting in that courtroom, I realized that Justice Bader Ginsburg just unwittingly forwarded a critically important insight about the Torah that I have been trying to articulate for some time. In the book of Leviticus, we read the infamous injunction against homosexuality (Leviticus18:22): “Do not lie with a male as you lie with a female. It is an abomination.” Justice Bader Ginsburg clarified Leviticus’ problem with homosexual unions:  in a patriarchal society, putting a male in the “role of a woman” was considered an act of abuse and debasement. In our modern discourse, however, we have moved on to egalitarianism. We seek no longer to define gender or marriage by roles of dominance and subordination.
In effect, Justice Bader Ginsburg pointed out that marriage has already been fundamentally redefined in our society; that limiting the definition of marriage solely to a man and a woman is dangerously anachronistic if we indeed strive for the more just value of egalitarianism.  And indeed, in non-Orthodox Judaism we have moved on. When I sit with couples who are about to get married, I explain to them about the patriarchal language of the ketubah, a Jewish marriage contract. I point out the way that the wedding ceremony had its roots in the male “acquiring” the female. We acknowledge this past together and then agree to add onto the ceremony rituals that reflect our modern values of equal partnership in marriage.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, therefore, has taught some of the most important Torah of our time. Like Rabbeinu Gershom, who responded to the changed reality of his time a millenium ago by banning the abusive practice of polygamy, Bader Ginsburg sees a need to respond to the changed realities of our time as well. She teaches us not in a Jewish context, but in an American one, as her insights resonate deeply with Jewish wisdom.
Jews have a long tradition of re-framing and changing our understanding of injunctions and permissions based on new insights about justice and compassion. Bader Ginsburg’s wisdom shows us how we must respond to ancient texts that vilify homosexuality and seemingly preclude same-sex marriage: by following the rabbinic process of embracing change for the sake of human dignity, justice, and holiness.
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Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Closet of the Religious Right

When Governor Mike Pence signed the discriminatory RFRA bill into law, I reacted like any other gay man--with sadness and anger at the rejection of lgbtq individuals based on someone’s notion of a religious ideal.  But my anger has given way to a sobering realization:  I am not as different from the Christian religious Right as I would like to think.  
When repeatedly challenged, Governor Pence dug in his heels and worked hard to avoid acknowledging how this bill enables citizens of his state to discriminate.  For months as this issue has reared its head in similar legislation in this country, I have seen this kind of reaction many times in interviews and conversations with those on the religious right.
Every time I see this behavior--otherwise intelligent and thoughtful people desperately avoiding acknowledging the truth--I recognize it fundamentally.  I have been there.  For forty-five years of my life, I lived in a closet that I had made for myself.  There was nothing in the world that I wanted more than to deny the truth of who I am.  I honestly believed that the truth was unthinkable, a betrayal not only of who I wanted to be in the world, but of all those I loved.  The more life showed me who I really am, the more I clung to a false personal narrative of who I desperately wanted to be.  
In the story of Passover, the Torah says that Pharaoh hardened his own heart for the first five plagues.  Surprisingly, for the final five, it was God who hardened Pharaoh’s heart.  It would seem that Pharaoh lost his free will, that he became a puppet of God’s will.  I read this differently.  When the text says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, it means that Pharaoh’s reason for hardening his heart shifted.  Instead of merely reacting against Moses, Pharaoh, on some very deeply-felt level, began to understand that Moses was in the right, and that he himself was wrong.  The more the undeniable truth confronted him, the more he denied it from a place of fear and desperation.  For Pharaoh, the Truth  was unthinkable: that there is a God, higher than any human being, who demands justice for oppressed, a world of ever-increasing compassion for those who suffer.  In this way, it was the Truth (God!) that hardened Pharaoh’s heart.
There are many kinds of closets in our human experience.  Some closets are about sexuality, others about religion, others are about power.  The Torah doesn’t use the term “closet.”  Instead, it is called a “hardened heart.”  The religious right is in a closet of religious sensibilities and denial that they are now desperately using as a weapon of discrimination.  Make no mistake, their behavior is identical to that of Pharaoh and his hardened heart.  Their hearts are hardened because of a desperate fear of losing their cherished version of a world that they want so badly to be true, a world and a truth narrowly defined by their pastors along Biblical precepts.
I have come to see that the Bible is not inherently synonymous with truth.  Rather, the Bible is a precious tool to help us to find the truth in our lived experience.  Another name of God is Truth, no matter how unthinkable and frightening that truth may be.  God, the Truth, can never be reduced to a text.  God, the Truth, is bigger than we are, bigger than any stories or ideas we can project about what we want life to be.  I have come to see that all closets and hardened hearts--no matter how well-intended--bring about far worse plagues than the truth that we feared to be so unthinkable.  The inevitable reality is that the truth is on the side of anyone who stands up for the oppressed.  The religious right knows this at the core of their being.  That’s why they are so frightened and their hearts are hardened.   Like Moses, may we stand and act courageously in the face of all those with hardened hearts.   And may we  watch the modern-day version of the miracle of Passover unfold in our time.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Election results in Israel: The triumph of fear over vision in the Jewish State

On election day, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu posted on Facebook that "Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls. Left-wing organizations are busing them out." With this fear-mongering, he succeeded in bringing out the far-right votes to secure his victory.  When I learned of these tactics, and of Likud’s victory, I was not angry.  I was overwhelmed with sadness and grief.  My sadness wasn’t only on account of dashed hopes for peace, or of an alienated American Jewry.  My deepest grief was on the triumph of fear over vision in the State of Israel. 
In many ways, the story of the Jewish people over centuries has been about the struggle between fear and vision--between the trauma of persecution and the mission to be a holy people, a light of justice and peace for the world.  On Passover we tell the story of how our people we were liberated from a fear-mongering Pharaonic state.  Our national narrative bears a message of justice and hope.  At our seders, we also acknowledge that “ every generation [enemies of the Jewish people] rise up to destroy us…”At the very core of our identity as a people, vision and fear exist together in a tense and competing partnership.
In the Zohar, a central medieval Jewish mystical text, this tension between a loving vision and a fearful darkness exists as an earthly reflection of a similar tension within the Godhead itself.  Even God struggles between the Divine “Attribute of Compassion”--an infinite desire to love and to embrace--along with the “Attribute of Judgment,” the inevitable need for limits and disappointments, for death itself.  Our rabbis teach us that God seeks to exist always with the Attribute of Compassion in ascendancy over the Attribute of Judgment. So, too, on earth, we must live so that our choices and actions place compassion over judgment.  If we incline more toward fear and judgment than compassion, we unleash greater potential for evil in the world.
The dream of the modern State of Israel came into being on the heels of the Shoah, when the world turned on us and sought to annihilate us.  Once again--now in real statecraft--the holiest dreams and hopes of the Jewish people were inexorably linked with trauma and horror.  Whether we realized it or not, the grand experiment of the Jewish state was a test of the Jewish people:  can we, despite six million reasons to incline toward the Attribute of Judgment, build a state that inclines toward the Attribute of Compassion?  Netanyahu would say that dreams and visions are nice, but the reality of Iran and an increasingly radicalized middle east calls for extreme defensive response.  He is not wrong about the realities of the Middle East and the very real existential threats to Israel. 
But in this election, and recently in the US Congress, Netanyahu has taken tactics deliberately aimed at striking fear into the hearts of the Jewish people, and of the world.  By playing partisan politics in the States, by eliciting a standing ovation for Eli Wiesel--thereby invoking the trauma of the Holocaust--by blanketly painting the political Left as in cahoots with the enemies of Israel and of Democracy, Netanyahu has tipped the scales toward the Attribute of Judgment.  The stage is now set for fear itself to be the defining characteristic of the Jewish state.  Under Netanyahu’s leadership, trauma and mistrust itself become the central bases of the future Jewish State, in all the ways Israel will respond to its neighbors, and to the world.
I grieve the results of this election because it represents the abandonment of the dreams of Israel’s founders, who sought a Jewish state that cherished all its citizens, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. I grieve this election because it replaces the core Israeli value of “Hatikvah,” of Hope, with cynicism.  The grand experiment of Israel was whether a vision of hope, justice, and peace could overcome centuries of exile and trauma in the hearts of the Israeli people.  I grieve because Netanyahu’s leadership presents an answer to this experiment, and that answer is no.  May those of us refuse to give up on a vision of hope and justice remain undaunted, despite our grief.  And may we live to see the day when the Attribute of Compassion beats at the deepest heart of the Jewish State.
Rabbi Gil Steinlauf is senior rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation, the oldest and largest conservative synagogue in Washington, DC. He is the first openly gay senior rabbi in the institution's 150-year history, and speaks publicly on matters of Israel, LGBT Justice, and Jewish Spirituality throughout the Nation's Capital and the world.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

What it Really Means to be Jewish

On Rosh HaShanah, I shared a message about the sacred purpose of the Jewish people:  we are here to find every kind of brokenness in this world and to repair it.  In every broken shard of life, there is a hidden spark of Divine light that we must find and return to its source in God’s oneness.  It’s up to us to take the initiative in overcoming hatred and judgment; it’s up to us, and not anyone else, to teach the world what it means that we are all one human family in the image of God.  In these times of so much violence and polarization--the violence, racism and outrage in Ferguson; the contempt-ridden polarization of left and right in so many political spheres, the missiles and tunnels of Hamas, the atrocities of ISIS, and the scourge of anti-Semitism around the globe--we, the Jewish people, must rise to our sacred purpose.  Why are we constantly beset by hatred and violence in our lives?  It actually all boils down to one root cause: it’s the propensity that lives in each of us to ‘other-fy,’ to reduce individuals and groups to the status of alien or different or inferior to “me” or to “us”.  We see this phenomenon in various forms--in the political polarization in this country, in the scourge of racism, as well as in the atrocities of Hamas and Isis.  This living in a state of alienation from other human beings violates an essential value in Judaism. The Torah exhorts us over and over to Remember the stranger, for we were once strangers in Egypt.  
It’s ironic, however, that with this clear universalist ethic in Judaism, we Jews also exult in being the “other” in the world.  As Leviticus says, “Kedoshim t’hiyu,” “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am Holy.”  According to most biblical scholars the Hebrew term Kadosh, or Holy, is best translated as “separate-and-elevated.”  For example, in biblical times, special objects were “Hekdesh,” consecrated, or set aside--made as ‘other’--in a separate and elevated way so that they could not be used for profane purposes, but rather for Divine purposes.  So the standard interpretation of all of this is that we, the Jews, are to be a Holy people--separate and elevated above the rest of the world--the “chosen people” with a special and Divine purpose in the world.  If you’re anything like me, this notion of being a ‘Holy-Other’ and Chosen people leaves you ambivalent at best, and downright alienated at worst.  This chosen to be other idea can even feel a little creepy:  if other-fication is the root of so much evil, and we celebrate our otherness, does that mean, God forbid, that we are to blame for anti-Semitism?  
...Don’t worry, the answer is no!  Not at all.  On this Yom Kippur, I am going to suggest today  a deeper understanding what it means not only to be Kadosh--holy-- but what it means to be Jewish in the first place!  I am going to explain today that being Jewish is not, and was never about us vs. the world.  Rather, it’s in how we can transform our relationship with the other that can truly sanctify the world.  I will show us how the great purpose of the Jewish people begins with each one of us today, and how we choose to live in every one of our relationships in our lives.   
The problem is, of course,  that people can be crazy-making!  You may have further noticed that life is constantly a mess:  for all our attempts at order and creating a life that meets expectation--free from drama--life keeps surprising us, and not often in pleasant ways.  “Der mensch tracht un Got Lacht,” as the Yiddish proverb goes:  “Man plans and God laughs.”   In truth, this proverb is an overriding theme of Yom Kippur:  on Kol Nidrei we ask to be released from vows knowing full well that we will mess up again and ask to be released the following year.  In our services today, we acknowledge that some of us in this room may be dead next year at this time, and we can’t predict who or how or when.   It’s all too easy, as happens to many in our society today, to become nihilists or atheists, to believe in nothing but chaos.  But Judaism rejects chaos and Godlessness.  Despite the messiness of life, we are called to sanctify the “sacred messiness”--as my teacher Irwin Kula calls it--of life itself.  In other words, whenever life is a mess, whenever bad things happen to us, whenever life itself feels “other” and alienating and terrifying, all of Judaism can be boiled down to a simple question:  “What can we do now?”  And do you know what we do?  We defy the chaos!  We bless this life, despite everything.  As the rabbi in Fiddler on the Roof says, “There’s a blessing for everything.”  Sometimes that blessing is literally a bracha, sometimes it’s a life-affirming act of tzedakah or kindness or courage; and even in the face of death itself, we respond with the Kaddish--an ultimate affirmation of life’s holiness.
My wife, Batya, is the Director of Social Justice and Interfaith Initiatives at the JCRC of Greater Washington.  Through her work with leaders of other faith traditions, she learns not only about their traditions but about what it means to be Jewish.  Once she was having a meeting at our dining room table with clergy from various faiths.  Batya put out a bowl of fruit and a Catholic priest expressed his understanding that that fruit isn’t kosher unless it is first blessed and declared holy by a rabbi. Now, this priest’s misconception makes a lot of sense:  in Catholicism,  objects like holy water are not holy until a Priest, a holy man, blesses them and declares them to be holy.  In that priest’s confusion, the fundamental difference in worldview between Catholicism and Judaism became clear to Batya.   For that priest, the world is not holy.  It needs to be made holy.  For Judaism, the world IS holy; we sanctify our lives by recognizing the holiness inherent in the world.  Whenever we perform a ritual mitzvah in Judaism, we invoke the phrase “Asher Kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu,”  Blessed is God “Who sanctified US through the commandments and commanded us…”  In other words, what makes us a Holy people is our actions, our words, our very outlook on all things as inherently holy and belonging to God.  In other words, we’re not inherently holier and closer to God than everyone else; rather, we’re the ones who can see how we--together with everyone else--are holy and close to God!  In other words, to be Jewish, to be an ‘Am Kadosh, a holy people,  is to learn to see the world and all of life through the eyes of God!
Imagine with me what it would be like, over the course of a lifetime, to relate to everyone and everything with this understanding of holiness.  Imagine with me cultivating God’s perspective on life, and not just our own.  Where we see life’s messiness, life’s darkness, life’s violence, and apparent chaos--God sees the world as Tov Me’od, very good--perfection in its very imperfection!  Where we might only see life’s Otherness, God sees Holiness.  Where we might see fear or despair, God sees infinite potential for the good, for justice, for beauty, for peace.  Batya has a beautiful way of practicing this Holiness-perspective even when walking down the street or stuck in traffic:  when she encounters people who are rude or angry, she repeats to herself over and over:  “You don’t know what he/she is going through.  You don’t know what he/she is going through.”  She does this practice because it helps her feel more at peace with whatever is annoying her.  Now that may be so, but I think she is blessing them even as they might make her life more difficult.  She is blessing them by acknowledging God’s perspective, by recognizing that what they truly are is infinitely more than how she might judge them based on one encounter or behavior.
So to be a Jew in the world is not about being a “separate and elevated” tribe above and beyond other peoples in the world.  Being a Jew is not limited by shared history or ethnicity or brilliance or neuroses.  In this day and age of so much other-fication in this world, we must indeed start by  celebrating what makes us unique and different.  But as individual human beings, we are not inherently unique or different because we’re Jewish.  We are not holy by being separate and elevated.  We are holy by relating to the world as God’s sacred Creation.  Kedushah, Holiness, at its core is a quality of awareness, of mindfulness that everything--even those things that frighten us, that make us feel out of control--everything belongs to God, is of God.  Our sacred purpose as the Jewish people in the world is--as individuals, as families, as communities--to teach the world how to transcend Otherness!
This sacred purpose is so important, so central, that I want to spell out how each and every one of us can do this:  the very moment you perceive another human being or situation as Other, as frightening or alienating or inferior to you--stop!  And find a way--no matter how agonizing or painful--to find the image of God, the spark of the Divine at the very core of that Other.  Our job is to replace all Otherness with Holiness!   Judaism serves as a technology to get us there.  In our service, in the Kedushah, we say “Kadosh Kadosh Kadosh,  Adonai Tzeva’ot, Melo Kol Ha’Aretz Kevodo,” “Holy holy holy is the God of all the forces of nature, the whole world is the fullness of God’s Presence.” Our ancient rabbis teach us over and over that all of the mitzvot, the commandments, come as one piece, one package to live every moment of our lives with this insight!  In this day and age, we like to think that the ethical commandments of Judaism take precedence over the ritual actions.  Not so, insist the rabbis.  A famous passage in the Talmud (Shabbat 127a) says that the act of simply studying Torah is equal to all the great ethical injunctions like honoring parents, visiting the sick, caring for the needy, and even making peace!  How could just sitting and studying be equal to making peace in the world?!  Other teachings insist that rituals like prayer, like lighting Shabbos candles, are equal to acts of justice.  How could this be?!  When we light Shabbos candles, what is it that we are really doing here?  An empty ancient tribal act?  Or, are we recognizing that there is Divine light in the world, despite all the darkness and otherness we perceive during the week?  
In this way, this practice of seeing with the eyes of God is equal in ritual and in ethical acts.  One informs the other.  So when the time comes in each of our lives to stand up for justice, or to stand even in the face of our enemies--are we doing these acts out of a  place of anger, out of a place of seeing our adversaries as alien Others?  Or are we engaging in these actions in the spirit of Kedushah, of that Divine Holiness perspective, where even in the moment where we are in the presence of our enemy we have the courage to remind ourselves “You don’t know what he/she is going through.”  Even as we struggle against overwhelming odds when all seems hopeless and despairing, are we able to defy that darkness and otherness and find even the smallest spark of light and hope?
Just as our people, even in the darkness of Hitler’s Europe, even in the Warsaw ghetto and elsewhere, continued to light Shabbat candles and acknowledge the possibility of light and renewal in the midst of apparent chaos, we are still here to continue to bless the possibility of light, to overcome the fear in our hearts of all those who terrify us, and recognize how they too, however distorted they may seem to us, are in the image of God.
At Ne’ilah, we will be distributing cards with the phrase “Ani v’Atah,   Me and You.”  It’s the name of a famous Israeli song, sung by Arik Einstein.  We do this as a simple reminder to take with us into the New Year of 5775 our sacred purpose as the Jewish people.  It’s what the philosopher Martin Buber taught in his famous work “I and Thou”:  It’s a reminder that just as we try to be Havruta partners with each other whenever we study Torah, we must understand ourselves to be Havruta partners with everyone whom we encounter in our lives--however briefly, however painfully or frighteningly, however alien and Other they may appear to us.  It is only together as Ani v’Atah, me AND you, not me versus you, that we sanctify this world.  It’s only when we set as our chiefest goal and purpose as the Jewish people to be the ones to transcend otherness that we can begin to create the possibility of peace and lasting justice.  We can’t wait for the rest of the world to live this message of transcending otherness.  This, and only this, is what we were chosen for in the first place.  So this year, let’s resolve together as a community to live in Havruta, Ani v’Atah, with all those in our lives and in our world.  Let’s make use of the ancient technology of holiness that we have received from our ancestors and learn to see the world not as a dark place of hostile others, but rather as an imperfectly perfect work in progress, one where God is always present, seeing it for all its beauty and potential, where we have the power to help the whole world see one another with the eyes of God.