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Tolerance, Tradition Collide In Same-Sex Union Row

Tolerance, Tradition Collide In Same-Sex Union Row

N.J. paper’s about-face raises a myriad of thorny questions.

Gary Rosenblatt is The NY Jewish Week's editor at large.

In light of the controversy in recent days over whether or not Jewish community newspapers should publish same-sex union announcements, I have an admission to make.

More than three decades ago, the Jewish newspaper I edited in Baltimore became the first to publish a same-sex announcement.

I tell you this with embarrassment, not pride, because it appeared in our Purim Spoof issue, a “fake” announcement featuring a photo of two men with their backs to the camera, and a notice that said the “Goldberg” and “Shapiro” families were “chagrined” to announce the upcoming marriage of their sons.

The very concept of such a union offered up publicly seemed so preposterous to our young editorial staff, including its sheltered, yeshiva-educated editor, that we thought it was funny. And, I should note, it was received without complaint.

Times have changed. And so have I.

On the surface, the furor over a New Jersey Jewish newspaper’s on-again, off-again decision to publish same-sex commitment announcements pits the Orthodox community versus gay rights advocates. But the problem is wider and deeper, reflecting the bitter divisions and serious misperceptions in our community, the fuzziness and dynamic nature of our identities nowadays, and the complex role of a Jewish newspaper that seeks to serve that community.

If you’re looking for THE answer here, I don’t have one. Indeed, I don’t think there is one. But I do believe this conflict, painful and emotional as it is, offers us an opportunity to learn about ourselves, our notions of “community” and how important, or not, we think it is to stay together even when we have strong differences among us.

In hindsight, it is easy to see how The Jewish Standard, a fixture among Jews in northern New Jersey since 1931, mishandled this communal hot-button issue every step of the way. The sequence began when it published its first-ever same-sex commitment announcement — without explanation or rationale.

Then, when members of the Orthodox community complained bitterly that this was an affront to Jewish tradition, the Standard apologized for offending its Orthodox readers and vowed not to publish such announcements again.

This set off a powerful backlash among liberal Jews who perceived that the paper had caved to Orthodox coercion, prompting the beleaguered staff to announce that it was reassessing its latest decision.

We at The Jewish Week could claim to be removed from the fray in that we don’t have a weekly social page of weddings, engagements and births, but that doesn’t absolve us from addressing the issue.

When it comes to the role of a Jewish newspaper, in addition to practicing quality journalism, there are two principles here. One is to be as inclusive as possible, building community and seeking out and appealing to all types of Jews, strengthening bonds between them. The other principle is to uphold and transmit Jewish values and traditions.

But what happens when those two admirable goals clash? Is it the primary duty of the paper to reflect the community as it is, or to set standards for it?

When I started out in journalism, the controversies generated by Orthodox Jews focused on Jewish newspapers publishing advertisements for non-kosher restaurants or for entertainment taking place on Shabbat. Then came heated debate over interfaith announcements. Over time, most of the complaints died down. There was a tacit acceptance, if not approval, of such realities, as long as they weren’t too blatant — no ads for pork, no blatant descriptions of activities violating the Sabbath, no explicit mention of Christian participation at weddings.

Whether that means we should applaud the community’s maturity and acceptance of cultural changes or bemoan that our commitment to Jewish heritage has weakened depends on one’s perspective.

My almost 40 years of observing and covering the Jewish community tells me that this issue, too, shall pass. But what is different about the same-sex commitment announcements is that it reveals a level of fear, even repulsion, among some elements of the Orthodox community, and a failure among liberal Jews to appreciate why listing a gay union as a simcha — a cause for communal celebration — is seen as particularly offensive to traditionalists because it seems to flaunt the very behavior that is proscribed by Jewish law.

I know of gay Orthodox Jews who are shunned in their synagogues, asked not to attend — not for halachic reasons but so as not to make other congregants uncomfortable.

That impulse to want gays to become or remain invisible is invidious. We need to recognize prejudice for what it is, and reject it.

It is a fact that the Torah prohibits homosexual acts. The same Torah commands us to treat “the other” with compassion. And one of the greatest contributions to mankind is Judaism’s insistence that all of us are created in God’s image.

Recent empathetic and courageous attempts by several Orthodox rabbis to address that apparent conflict resulted in a statement of principles, signed by more than 150 of them, that essentially calls for treating gay and lesbian Jews with respect without condoning prohibited sexual acts. It favors welcoming rather than ostracizing gays, and should be applauded — and signed.

The rabbis did not address the issue of same-sex union announcements, though, and no doubt would have a variety of opinions on it. As one leading rabbi told me, “it comes down to community standards” of appropriate and acceptable norms. In San Francisco, same-sex unions are standard fare for J., the local Jewish publication; not so, as seen, in northern New Jersey.

Where does that leave us? Only with the thought that the answers lie within.

It’s up to us, as individuals and as a community, to determine not our comfort zones but our limits. If we put ourselves in the place of “the other” — whether that’s a lesbian woman or a halachic Jew, or both — it may change our perspective.

In the end, I’m hoping we can find a way to expand our tent enough to accommodate those we may disagree with on some issues, but with whom we share not only a Jewish past but a Jewish future.


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