Yes, Gordimer, Leah Forster Should be Allowed to Perform

The Gemara in Yevamos 79b states that three traits are emblematic of a Jew, and that if any of those three traits are missing, we should question the person’s heritage: That they be compassionate, humility/contrition, and a willingness to do kindness to others. And yet, seemingly in direct contravention of this gemara, Avraham Gordimer, on December 20th, penned an article in the Jewish Press calling on the Orthodox community to withhold our empathy for our fellow Jew.

In his article titled ‘Should Leah Forster be Allowed to Perform?‘ Gordimer questions whether or not it is appropriate not only for a lesbian woman to hold a comedy event at a kosher establishment, but whether or not it is appropriate for Orthodox Jews to attend. Despite acknowledging that Leah “does not publicly discuss her sexual orientation,” and that the “content of her routine is, as she claims, free of anything controversial[,]” he nonetheless proceeds to warn us that attending such a performance may be inappropriate since “when [people] laugh along with a performer and enjoy his or her presentation, they bond and start to grow comfortable with what he or she represents. Concomitantly, they start becoming uncomfortable with anything the Torah says that may paint this person in a negative light.”

He goes on to warn that “Attitudes in America toward homosexuality and non-marital intimate relationships have undergone a sea change in the last few decades[,]” and that “Even if viewers claim to hold by their moral opposition to homosexuality[,]” exposure to LGBT performers and the humanity they portray “elicited sympathy for them and their way of life and thus helped break down the walls of Biblical morality.”

In other words, despite the fact that the performances have nothing to do with the performer’s LGBT identity, and has nothing to do with promoting LGBT identities and orientations, we should nonetheless refuse to attend their performances since interacting with their humanity may cause us to rethink the bigoted positions our community has spent so much time carefully inculcating into its members.

Never mind the fact that while the Orthodox community continues to pretend otherwise, there exists no issur in the Torah against having an LGBT orientation or identity, certainly not anything that dictates what sex or gender we should find attractive. More to the point this is another illustration of the fact that this isn’t really about whether or not we’re worried about eroding Torah values in the community as much as it’s about specifically discriminating against LGBT people.

I’ve never once seen an article from Gordimer similarly calling for the boycott of non-religious, Shabbos-violating Jewish performers. I’ve never heard of someone being thrown out of a shul for being an adulterer, and if it happens it certainly isn’t as commonplace as LGBT people being excluded from shuls for the mere fact of their identities or orientations. We as a community, in the interest of maintaining a connection, however tenuous, to all Jews, regardless of their level of observance, have always welcomed people who haven’t been perfectly observant, even of halachos whose violation carries the death penalty. And yet, for some reason, when it comes to LGBT people we decide to draw a line and rigidly defend it.

That’s not new. What is new is the specific expression of this calculus: God forbid we engage with LGBT people in a way that showcases their humanity, that enables us to empathize with them as people instead of just viewing them as some foreign, sinful threat, lest we find ourselves so compelled by how like us they that we abandon our bigotry. Imagine if kiruv rabbs adopted with shabbos-violators, or people who don’t keep kosher? I’m willing to bet that membership numbers at Aish and Ohr Somayach would rapidly dwindle.

The call to empathy and compassion, to see past externalities to the humanity in each and every person is what makes us Jews. Certainly not misguided calls to the contrary based on a standard we don’t apply to any other group.


How Casual Bigotry Causes Violence

Author’s note: The following is a response I wrote to a person with whom I was having a discussion about bigotry against gay people. The conversation was in response to some comments I made about today’s stabbing at the Jerusalem pride parade. I do have a more complete post coming soon, but in the meantime I thought this was worth sharing. 
See, that’s the thing. I don’t know if you’re the kind of person who would actually run after gay people holding hands throwing rocks at them, or if you’re just the kind of person who would laugh at a gay person being called a faggot, but here’s what you need to understand. I’m going to assume you’re just the kind of person who wouldn’t challenge bigotry against gay people if he heard it. There are a lot of you, and I don’t think you’re evil. Just a product of your environment.
Here’s how casual bigotry works. you’re standing around with a group of friends and one of them starts talking about this faggot who was staring at him as he walked down the street. Your friend says how disgusting faggots are and how if he saw the guy again he’d beat the crap out of him. You might laugh, or you might just stand there as everyone else laughs, but you wouldn’t speak up and challenge him even though you would never dream of beating someone up for being gay.
Anyway, a week or so later, this friend of yours is ogled by another gay guy, and that day he was having a bad day anyway, so he decides to let off some steam by bashing the gay guy’s face into the pavement a few times. He comes back to your group of friends, and tells you all what he just did. Some people clap him on the back and congratulate him on a job well done. Some people just laugh. Some, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you’d be in this group, don’t laugh, and don’t congratulate him, but you wouldn’t necessarily tell him off either. You certainly wouldn’t tell him that you’re never going to talk to him again, and you definitely wouldn’t tell him he should work on liking gay people more. You may tell him it’s a stupid thing to do because it could get him arrested, but you wouldn’t make it about the person he beat, you’d make it about him.
And even if you did protest, you wouldn’t report him to the police. Even if he did it again a month later. Even if he did it again after that two months later. Because the guy he beat was gay, and on some level had it coming. Maybe he “shoved his gayness” in your friend’s face. Maybe he was being too loud about it. Maybe he shouldn’t have looked at your friend. Whatever the reason, you’d find a way to justify not reporting him to the police, no matter how many gay people he beat.
Eventually, you’d probably distance yourself from him if he continued to beat gay people, but that would probably be more out of a distaste for violence than out of concern for gay people.
And it’s not just you. There are a lot of people like this. They don’t hate gay people, per se, but they wouldn’t really stand up to people who do, either.
What that means, is that people who do truly hate gay people, and who truly abuse and discriminate against gay people have a safe haven amongst people like you. They know that while they may eventually lose the friendship of those around them, they’ll never have to worry about being stopped. So even though you may not hate gay people per se, or even give it that much thought, if you’re not confronting the bigotry they experience every time you see it, you’re contributing to the problem. You’re not causing it directly, but you’re letting it happen. You’re fostering an environment in which gay people feel unsafe, and people who hate gay people feel safe. You should never want to be a part of something like that.

Looking Past Politics and Seeing Humanity

On April 17, I attended a protest outside the UN, the purpose of which was to to demonstrate our belief to the UN Security Council that withdrawing their (embarrassingly paltry) peacekeeping force from Darfur would leave Darfurian refugees with nothing to protect them from the Sudanese military. The sign I carried, which read “To NCP: Rape is not a weapon of war,” was in reference to the Darfurian village of Tabit, where the Sudanese army following government orders systematically raped over 200 women. The genocide, to date, has killed 500,000 people, and within Darfur alone, displaced an estimated 2,500,000 people. As causes go, you’d think that’s a pretty good one, right?

As we were standing there, holding our banner and listening to a speech from one of the leaders of the protests, three counter-protesters showed up and tried to shout us down. They were shouting something about western imperialism and intervention in internal African affairs, when one of them, the whitest white man I have ever seen, completely lost it. Literally shaking with anger and spitting with rage, he got in the face of the man giving the speech (a Nigerian man), and raged about how we were western imperialists who were promoting the destruction and murder of Africa and its people. So deep was his hatred of anything Western, that he wouldn’t even begrudge a protest asking for a UN peacekeeping force comprised entirely of African soldiers, because he truly believed that the UN was an American puppet organization.

But what was really incredible, was when the counter-protestor got into an argument with a Sudanese man who now lives in New York, a man who lost family to the genocide, a man who would still have that family if someone—anyone—had intervened to stop Omar Al Bashir, the political Islamic genocidal president of Sudan, and told that man that the intervention he was begging for, the intervention that would have saved his family, 500,000 people, and millions of people from being displaced, raped, maimed, and herded into displaced persons camps, was wrong because no one has any business telling an African nation what to do. Not only that, but he equated the desire and request for intervention with Hitler herding Jews into cattle cars for transport to death camps (Don’t ask me how he arrived at that conclusion; I have no idea). Godwin rolled over in his grave.

I wonder if once—just once—that idiot ever sat back, shut his stupid mouth, and really put himself in the place of a Darfurian rape victim, or the lone survivor of a family butchered by genocidal murderers. I wonder if he ever let his ideology, his political preconceptions, take a backseat for a second, and just thought about what it would mean to be in such a position. To be in the position of that Sudanese man he equated with Hitler. It may not have led him to the same conclusion, but I doubt he would have ever let himself rage like that in public against a man begging for the lives of his people.

This callous disregard for the humanity of a problem in favor of its politics is unfortunately common among discussions of social and human rights issues. I was talking to a woman who had been abused by her ex-husband. She told me that when she asked her rabbi for advice, he told her to, “Go home, wine and dine him, look good, and get pregnant.” The idea being that their marriage and relationship could be saved through the mutual bond of a child to care for. What would that rabbi have said if he had paused for a moment before responding, and put himself in that woman’s position. What would he have felt had he considered, just for a moment, what it must feel like to be beaten by the man who is supposed to love you most. Would he have told her to go back, prepare food for him, and have sex with him, if he had instead pictured himself ostensibly being told to reward his abuser for his abuse?

Would anyone tell a survivor of sexual abuse to just “get over it,” or stop “using it as an excuse to justify their sins,” or call them “attention seeking” or “drama queens” or ostracize, shun, or publicly humiliate them if they just stopped for a second and put themselves in the shoes of a boy or girl, man or woman who survived sexual abuse and is now suffering with depression, PTSD, or eating disorders, who, by necessity, became addicted to drugs and alcohol just to escape the horrifying reality of what happened to them, who daily has to fight just to give themselves a reason not to kill themselves and end the endless pain—would anyone who really empathized with a survivor ever let those words pass their lips if they really understood? Would anyone every tell an LGBT person that they were a damaged, disgusting, loathsome, unnatural abomination if they, even for just a second, truly felt the pain that LBGT people experience every day that they’re forced to deny who they are for fear of what their family and community would do if they found out?

None of this is to say that everyone must agree on exactly how to solve these problems. There will obviously always be differences of opinion on how to fix any problem, from how to solve inner city poverty to raising awareness about child sexual abuse. What does need to change is the focus on the politics of the problems rather than the problem itself. Politics need to come secondary to the needs of the people in pain. Extending or eliminating the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse might open yeshivos to more litigation? Ok, there may be a solution to that problem for yeshivos, but shouldn’t an organization claiming to have the best interests of klal yisrael in mind have as its primary focus the physical and mental wellbeing of its children rather that sacrificing them on the altars of their constituent organizations’ reputations? Shouldn’t ensuring that child sexual abuse ends and that survivors can get the help they need and bring their abusers to justice without fear of retribution take precedence over anything else?

The resulting problem is not only stagnation on finding real solutions to these problems, but a widespread refusal to even discuss problems for which solutions don’t seem readily available. Homosexuality is considered an abomination by the Torah, so why even discuss it? Never mind that our children are suffering, harming themselves, being sent to traumatic reparative therapy programs, and killing themselves when the pain becomes too much to handle. Let’s not discuss it because the Torah says that gay sex is an abomination and therefore a solution isn’t readily apparent. Let’s not discuss the plight of agunot because Halacha is Halacha, this is how it works, and there don’t appear to be any solutions that will satisfy everyone, so why even bother? I’ve encountered this attitude far too often, and it is what is holding us back as a community from coming up with real solutions to help those among us who have been ignored for years and most need our attention and support.

I’ve always been of the firm belief that even if we don’t see a solution, it is still our obligation to discuss these problems as a community, and it is still our obligation to feel the pain of those experiencing these hardships. Necessity is the mother of invention. If we truly felt their pain, we would move heaven and earth to help them. We would move mountains to ensure that not even one woman is chained to a marriage she doesn’t want. We would bend over backwards to ensure that not a single LGBT member of our community contemplates suicide. We would do everything in our power and then even more, to prevent another child from ever being raped or molested, and that if by some unfortunate circumstance they were, they would be believed, accepted, supported, and given the help they needed, and see their abuser, whether he or she be yeshivish, chassidish, modern orthodox, secular, or non-Jewish, prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

The next time you hear someone telling you that they’re in pain, instead of dismissing them—listen. Take a second to feel their pain with them; let them know that you’ll be there to help carry their burden and that you won’t rest until they have justice—until they have peace.

I can't even

“We Are Under Attack by the LGBTPed Community:” My Response

On a good day it’s hard for me to feel at ease in my community. I’m a survivor of abuse living in a community that covers it up. I’m someone who was told to shut up when he had the choice to report. I’m someone whose own family called him a liar when he went to them for help. I’m someone who nearly killed himself because he was blamed for his abuse by someone who had witnessed it and promised to help. On a good day I’m aware of the countless survivors who live my past. On a bad day, I run across Yeshiva World.

“We Are Under Attack by the LGBTPed Community.” That was the headline of an op-ed written by a Rabbi Yair Hoffman, originally printed in the 5 Towns Jewish Times, and shared online by Yeshiva World. For those who may not know what the “LGBT” part of that initialism means, it stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender. The “Ped” part, though, is an abbreviation of “pedophile.” Pedophile. Pedophile. That term was used continuously throughout the piece, and in the comments section, people were congratulating this Rabbi Hoffman for his wit in coming up with that bit of brilliant wordplay.

It hurt so much I cried. Seeing that caused me physical pain. Survivors of abuse and LGBT people will understand, but to those of you reading this who may not understand, it’s a play on the unfortunately common misconception that because pedophiles often target little boys, and gay people are sexually attracted to the same sex, gay people must have a higher chance of being pedophiles, despite the overwhelming amount of evidence proving otherwise.

Think about the context of that statement: A community that covers up abuse with a zeal that rivals the Catholic Church, is calling LGBT people pedophiles, and thus condemning them. I have LGBT friends, LGBT friends who are, themselves, survivors of sexual abuse, and this is nothing short of a slap in the face, a kick in the crotch and a loogie on top to every single one of them. I am not an LGBT person, but as a survivor of abuse I feel just as betrayed by this characterization. The community can’t be bothered to take care of the actual pedophiles it fosters, protects, and harbors, but sees fit to use the term “pedophile” as a pejorative for people who are in no way more likely to be pedophilic than non-LGBT people. Take your pick, Rabbi Hoffman, is a pedophile something so offensive that the very mention of the word should inspire disgust, or is it the candy man, or the rebbi, or the unlicensed therapist you give an Aliyah to every week?

Even the use of the word “pedophile” on a website like Yeshiva world is hypocritical. This is the same website that refused to post anything about the Weberman trial because of its “ethical standards.” This is an extension of the community that reads Hamodia, Yated, Etc. On December 17 of last year, Ruth Lichtenstein, publisher of Hamodia, wrote an op-ed titled “Dear Reader” in which she detailed her struggle to “consistently bring [you] the highest standard of clean, “kosher” news, avoiding all sensationalism and gutter journalism.” After detailing exactly how she goes about censoring the news that reaches her paper, and how many articles she’s rejected over the years for being, by her standards, inappropriate, she had this to say: “To this end, a crucial part of our mission is protecting our readers’ right “not to know.” They didn’t mention anything about Weberman either at the time.

Two weeks ago, Mishpacha magazine got me hopeful. They published an article titled “King of Hearts” about a Rabbi Moshe Bak who founded an organization, Project Innocent Heart, geared toward educating teachers and parents about abuse, how to spot it, and how to handle it. One line in particular made me hopeful—I thought that maybe, just maybe, the Frum community was taking a backhoe to the pit of sand in which it usually finds its head: “I recently met with a clinician who deals with convicted pedophiles. She said that although only a small percentage of abuse occurs on school grounds, the safest place for a predator to operate is in a Jewish day school.” We’ve known this for years, those of us who deal with survivors, and have been shouting it from the rooftops, but no one listened—until, it seemed, that article was published.

A survivor friend of mine showed me that article, and asked me to write a letter to the editor in response. We both submitted our letters, and hers was published…with the most important bit missing. This was her unedited response to the article:

Kudos to Rabbi Bak and Mishpacha Magazine for taking a stand and raising awareness about abuse within the Frum community! However, there are several points I would like to make.

1) As a survivor of childhood abuse, and a friend to many other survivors, it has been my experience that many in a position to take a stand on abuse (i.e. rabbis, teachers, and principals), enforce proper reporting, and prevent further abuse, end up sweeping allegations under the rug, creating stigma and taboo surrounding the issue, and fostering an environment in which it would be unlikely that a child would ever feel comfortable coming forward about being abused, or reaching out for help. These secrets are harmful and cost lives. Ignorance in this case is not bliss, it’s dangerous.

2) Unfortunately, too often the problem exists at home. The abuse is often perpetrated by a parent, sibling, or close relative. Leaving the education of children on these matters to parents and families on an individual basis is putting children whose families are the abusers at risk. By having a third party, like a school, educate the children about abuse and how to prevent it through personal safety, good touch and bad touch, etc., you would be ensuring that every child, regardless of what may or may not be happening to them at home, is educated.

3) We need Gedolei Hador to issue public statements supporting the importance of reporting cases of abuse to the proper authorities. By doing so, we will be ensuring our children’s safety and the future of Klal Yisrael; Like Rabbi Bak said: “[Making] our communities into transparent safety zones where predators can’t survive.” The efforts of organizations like Project Innocent Heart, Magenu, etc., are very commendable, but until the general public sees their leaders publicly taking a stand, the issue will not be taken as seriously as it should.

They published it mostly unedited, aside from the last part, which was heavily edited:

Lastly, the efforts of organizations like Project Innocent Heart, Magenu, etc., are very commendable, but until the general public sees their community leaders publicly taking a stand, the issue will not be taken as seriously as it should.

Any mention of Gedolim or their accountability was removed. This same friend of mine emailed Project Innocent Heart asking about their reporting policy, and has yet to hear back.

And this community has the gall to call my friends pedophiles while letting the real ones walk. Instead of bringing to justice the scores of criminals who have been allowed to live among us freely, the community instead focuses on trying to fix people who were never broken to begin with.