Two weeks ago the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the largest body of Orthodox rabbis in North America, issued a statement formally distancing themselves from the organization known as JONAH: Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality. It was in 2004 that the RCA first suggested in an earlier statement that rabbis might consider referring Jews struggling with homosexuality to that organization.
In the time since 2004 numerous issues have arisen with the therapeutic practices conducted by JONAH and other similar organizations. Serious allegations have arisen about the abusive nature of the treatment and subsequent mental health issues that arise for the patients, including higher risk of suicide. These change therapy clinics are indeed facing tests in court in both New Jersey and California, including JONAH.
The RCA after consultations with experts in psychology and law as well as rabbinic guides publicly decided to distance themselves from JONAH. In so doing the RCA has made a not so subtle move towards recognizing that homosexuality might not be something that can be “repaired” or changed in an individual. While the RCA has just begun this process, two and a half years ago hundreds of Orthodox rabbis, educators and communal leaders declared publicly that homosexual Jews are deserving of dignity and respect.
It follows logically that if homosexuals are deserving of dignity and respect that would translate into equal protection and equal rights under civil law. Thus, a colleague of mine in Portland, Maine, Rabbi Akiva Herzfeld, recently published an opinion piece in the local paper celebrating the passage of same-sex marriage equality in Maine. Rabbi Herzfeld has received countless calls and emails thanking him for his thoughts and he has also received numerous concerns that what he advocates is a slippery slope. If he supports civil marriage equality for homosexuals then why not for polygamists, practitioners of bestiality, etc.
The slippery slope argument can be very persuasive and it can also be paralyzing. The fear of what might be next can inhibit any action at all. Indeed, one does need to carefully consider future implications of their actions but after careful consideration and the weighing of ethical, moral, legal and social responsibilities one must make a decision.
One also needs to remember that there is another slippery slope out there, one that is equally powerful. The slippery slope of denying privileges and rights to one group very easily leads to the denial of those same privileges and rights to the next group and the next group and so on. After all, it was this same slippery slope argument that played heavily in the polemic of individuals opposed to emancipation, civil rights and desegregation. We may look back at those arguments now and find them foolish but many, many Americans did not during the time.
While we carefully consider the slippery slope of increased rights and privileges to an ever expanding circle of groups and constituencies, let us also consider the slippery slope of decreased rights and privileges to an equally expanding circle of groups and constituencies. Which slippery slope would we fear more? Which possible outcome is more damaging to our national character: a never-ending increasing of rights to a never-ending list of minority groups or a never-ending decreasing of rights to a never-ending list of minority groups? This is the question we must carefully and honestly consider.
I do not have an easy answer for you to ponder on this question. My aim is to provide another frame by which to view the question and allow you to come to your own conclusions. The Jewish way is not always in readily packaged quick soundbites of an answer but rather with offering the questions to grapple and to wrestle with.
Do people change? As human beings, are we not the sum of our unique genetic make-up and the equally unique combination of experiences, good and bad, that have brought us to this present moment? And, if the above is the case, than what is the point of the Yom Kippur fast? What is the point of this long day of introspection – the synagogue liturgy peppered with calls for Teshuvah (repentance or return) – if in the end we are who we are, and that’s it?
Some will answer that the meaning of Yom Kippur, this Day of Atonement, also called a Shabbat Shabbaton (the Sabbath of all Sabbaths) is to bring about contrition in our short-comings and strive to make the next year better. There might be something to it. It’s good to try. My view of Judaism has a focus of human perfecting, getting incrementally better and better, rather than the unattainable goal of perfection.
Nonetheless, isn’t it ridiculous to expect that this will be there year you finally get it right? Didn’t I really try last year? And, in fact, what expectation is there that this year will be better than last if the dates for next Yom Kippur are already set on the calendar?
I could no longer expect to really change who I am than I could radically alter my own genetic code or build a time machine that would take me back and tinker with the specific events of my past, especially my early childhood, both good and bad, that shape my personality. After all, Nature and Nurture have shaped me into who I am, and, well, that is that. Isn’t it?
I think not. All of the above misses a powerful trope in Judaism, namely that, while we have free-will, making all of our own choices, nonetheless, our soul has a trajectory.
According to the Talmud (Niddah 30b), every soul is specifically chosen to live the life of every specific person. Every soul is guided by an angel who teaches the soul everything it will need to know in the world. Then, upon birth, the angel touches the upper lip, leaving a tiny dent, confounding speech, and a bit of amnesia. The soul cannot simply come into this world from the realm of God, Infinity, and mystery. As a rabbi I have come to understand my calling less at teaching people Torah, but rather helping them uncovering what they’re soul already knows. I call it Holy Remembering. It accounts for those moments of epiphany when our life’s events align, life makes sense, when disparate pieces of knowledge show us a clearer lens with which to see the world. “I thought I knew it, but now I understand”.
The challenge of Yom Kippur is to consider your soul’s trajectory.
What are the moments of your life, good and bad alike, that have shaped you? What career path you are meant to take, the people you are meant to love, the causes you are meant to champion, the good deeds you were chosen to accomplish—these are all very specific things that you were meant to do; you were designed for these specific things. People often try to turn away from doing the thing they’re meant to do, or are most naturally gifted at. Some events were no doubt simple chance. There is a bit of randomness in the world, but there is order too. Your soul knows what it needs to do in this world, it knows too the experiences you need to help it fulfill its calling. What if your soul chose your parents? What if your soul chose to lead you to those powerful turning-points in your life?
Your soul cast “you” in the role of (your name here) to accomplish some very important things. Sometimes we fight against what our soul wants for us – in those moments, life is a bit of a drag, we feel trapped by circumstance, powerless to overcome our lot in life. The Bible is filled with characters who run away from their soul’s trajectory, Moses feigns a speech impediment, and Jonah, whom we read about on Yom Kippur and whose soul’s trajectory was aimed at the big city of Niniveh, avoids his calling and finds himself inside the bely of a whale instead. But, when we understand, when we honor our soul’s calling, our life has flow – the abundance of life becomes obvious to us, as if it has always been there but now we feel it.
So, Yom Kippur… Introspection – yes, definitely. But, not simply to uncover your particular foibles. You know what they are already and so does God. Rather, ask, “In all those moments, at those touch-points of my life, good and bad, was my soul guiding me to experiences that I needed to have, to help me fulfill my soul’s calling?” “What kind of a caretaker have I been to my soul’s journey.”
The message of the holiday can be: Your soul has chosen you for a reason. Your soul needs you (imperfections and all) to carry it along a unique path, that only you can carry it. Yom Kippur is not really about the past, where you’ve been, but rather, the future, where all those moments have been leading you to. This Yom Kippur, and throughout this new Jewish year, ask, “What roles or tasks am I running away from via distraction that my soul wants me to pursue?”