A Time For Honesty, and Courage

The horrific events of this past weekend in Orlando, where forty-nine members of the LGBT community were slaughtered en masse by a Muslim terrorist and many more were wounded, have left us all stunned and bereaved. As has been pointed out by many, this was not only a hate attack against the gay and lesbian community, but also, more widely, a terrorist strike against America’s pluralistic society and the Western culture it represents.

Just when I thought I had been brought to my metaphorical knees by a crazy hatred that knows no bounds, I was saddened beyond words even further to learn of another kind of hate crime, perpetrated against the non-Orthodox community in Jerusalem by the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, Shlomo Amar, and those who aided and abetted him.

Bringing along with him families from Ateret Kohanim, a religiously and politically right-wing Yeshiva, Rabbi Amar essentially took over the space designated (and sanctioned by the government of Israel after painstaking negotiations) for egalitarian prayer, erected a makeshift mechitza to separate men and women in prayer, and delivered remarks that were virulent enough to compete with many of the hate speeches delivered by Imams in their Friday addresses to the faithful, the kind that we Jews are quick to point out and lament. He referred to the non-Orthodox as evil, said that the government of Israel had no right whatsoever to grant them access for prayer services at any part of the Kotel area, and essentially wrote them out of any claim to religious legitimacy within the Jewish community of Israel. All of this follows closely on the heels of the Israeli government’s most recent failure to finally implement the plan that Jewish Agency Chairman Sharansky had sought, at the Prime Minister’s request, to design.

I am quite aware that the event in Orlando was one of mass murder, and Rabbi Amar’s carefully staged event, carried out under police protection (far more protection than Women of the Wall have ever been granted), killed no one. I understand the difference. But make no mistake; the hatred, masquerading as religious piety, that brought the Orlando gunman to his date with infamy, is a close cousin of the hatred, masquerading as religious piety, that led Rabbi Amar and his followers to manifest a complete and irrational disregard for the dignity and existential legitimacy of a way of understanding God and Judaism different from his own. Hate is hate is hate is hate…

There comes a time when events swirling around us dictate that we abandon the cover of nuanced wordsmithing and say what needs to be said. I would like to suggest two truths that need to be said and assimilated if the events of this past week are to have any lasting impact for the good on our communities.

Regarding what happened in Orlando, I think that all sectors of the religious world, not just the socially progressive ones, need once and for all to acknowledge and embrace the reality of one community, regardless of sexual orientation. There is no straight world/gay world dichotomy, and all who would pretend that the LGBT community is separate and apart from the so-called straight world are living in an ocean of denial. What happened in Orlando happened to the human community, not just the LGBTQ world.

Few and far between are families in the so-called straight world, no matter how conservative that world might be, that have no children, siblings, family members or close friends who are gay. People in the staid synagogue world might allow themselves to think otherwise, but that’s largely because those children and men and women who are living an LGBTQ life are not likely to find the synagogue world a welcoming environment for them, so they don’t frequent those synagogues. It is precisely those kinds of attitudes that freeze the LGBTQ community out. Children are reluctant to share their truth, parents in turn feel constrained to stay silent, and not only does this force them to live a lie, but it also, in turn, deprives them of the opportunity to be proud of who they are, and have others be proud of them as well.

The attack on the LGBTQ community in Orlando was an attack on all of us.

And regarding what happened in Jerusalem, it is well past time for the saner sectors of the Orthodox world to clearly, unambivalently, and loudly declare that the intolerance of the Haredi world and its stranglehold on Israeli politics is a Hillul Hashem, a profanation of God’s name, and a huge spiritual and political disaster for the State of Israel. I am beyond tired of hearing friends and family in the Orthodox world privately express their dismay over the pre-modern attitudes and practices of the Ultra-Orthodox world, but be reluctant to publicly take them on. The ancient rabbis had it exactly right when they said sh’tika k’ho’da’ah damei; silence may fairly be interpreted as acceptance, or even agreement. What Rabbi Amar did (his salary is paid for with taxpayer shekels, by the way) has to horrify the more moderate wing of Orthodoxy, both here and in Israel, as much as it horrifies us. If they fail to cry out against what he did and what he represents, they share responsibility for the damage done.

There are, of course, many other painful lessons and truths to be drawn from this most awful week, each deserving its own attention. Obviously, the scourge of ISIS-inspired terrorism will oblige us all to continue the struggle to arrive at a maintainable balance between civil liberties and our own security. But my sense is that we ought to focus our attention on our own attitudes, which are more malleable and receptive to change than ISIS ideology. This is no time to pretend otherwise. We all need to be taking a long, hard, painful look in the mirror.

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.