‘Till Inclusion Do We Part: A Rejoinder to the Challenge of Orthodox Inclusiveness and Acceptance

I recently read an article by an Orthodox Rabbi whose decision to host a Keshet event at his Shul caused me less anguish than the article he wrote defending that decision. His article can be found here. My response, more or less as I emailed it to him, follows. I share it with the public to solicit responses in defense of either position. Please feel free to comment below.

I recently read your article “Living Inclusion,” which is linked to from JewishLearning.com. While I appreciate your point of view and feel similarly that we need to find appropriate ways to include all Jews in our communities, I wanted to take the time to tell you precisely why I disagree fundamentally with the basic premise of your article.

It seems to me that you have conflated “inclusion” with “acceptance,” “promotion” or  even “celebration.” Orthodox Synagogues, for example, have generally included people who drive on Shabbat, even giving them Aliyot. But we have never promoted the very actions that they do with which we disagree. Would you publicly announce from the pulpit on Shabbat morning how excited we are to see all of those who have arrived here by car? Although I understand that your Synagogue does not use cones or a chain to curtail driving to Shul, driving on Shabbat is certainly not something Orthodoxy promotes or celebrates, and I would not view homosexuality any differently. While thundering sermons against alternative lifestyles may not be appropriate either, and while we may even offer Aliyot or other Kibudim to homosexuals, hosting a program which condones and normalizes such a lifestyle as healthy and acceptable feels to me like a giant step over a thick grey line tantamount to hosting an Adulterers’ Shabbaton or a Polygamists’ Shabbat Lunch. Furthermore, comparing a program condoning homosexuality to English-language sermons is disingenuous; while it is true that there was vehement opposition to that innovation, that opposition was rooted in the mistaken notion that the preservation of Yiddish was critical to the preservation of Judaism in America. Nobody claimed that Yiddish-only sermons was the explicit command of G-d.

Thus on to your statement that “to be inclusive does not mean to forsake one’s values or religious principles.” Granted. But how are those values to be articulated, particularly in an environment in which the inclusion of people whose actions belie those values is made so evident? Have you made any equally robust statements from the pulpit or in writing that, by the way, homosexuality is completely forbidden and labeled as an abomination by G-d? Have you articulated in any of your articles the beauty of marriage as the equal sharing of physiological opposites, something impossible in a homosexual relationship and a misunderstanding typical of our self-centered American culture? Of course you could articulate G-d’s aversion to homosexuality in some other way if you want to, but I would hope that that would be addressed in some way equally public to the Keshet event and your subsequent article, if it is truly important to you to “not forsake one’s values or religious principles.”

Besides explaining the Torah’s view on homosexuality, have you discussed with your congregants, or put into writing, the dangers of inclusion itself, and that we must be cautious not to necessarily accept or promote that which we include? The line between inclusion and acceptance may be too precise for some people to understand without a very clear explanation. Why should a young man or woman in your congregation not engage unashamedly in a homosexual lifestyle if this person is to be fully included anyway? Are you prepared to engage in a serious discussion with this young person, or with your Congregation as a whole, as to why this kind of behavior is entirely unacceptable, or are you leaving that to chance and hoping they don’t ask? One apologetic sentence in your article about preserving our (as yet unstated) values may not be enough in the long run. The question is, where our ability to educate falls short (and that is certainly an important thing to try first), is inclusion always the next best step, or does the risk to our own congregants and families ever make such attempts untenable?

I would also be curious whether inclusion would be equally acceptable were it not to overlap with the latest bastion of liberalism in our host culture. How about if a Satmar group wanted to rent out your Synagogue for an anti-Israel rally? Would you include them in your big tent and then write an article laboriously comparing yourself to Yitzchak Avinu? How about Reform Jews looking for a place to discuss the latest research on biblical authorship or the Sinaitic myth? How about radical Messianic Lubavitchers who wanted a room the size of Fischer Hall to hold a dinner, show a Messianic video and sing and dance to “Yechi HaMelech?” Are there any limits to inclusion, even insofar as we are careful never to personally “forsake our values or religious principles?” I imagine you would agree that there are a lot of wonderful, Holy Jews out there with a lot of confused and misshapen ideas. Should we include them all without reservation?

I can’t help but wonder if, were we more tapped into the eternality of G-d’s Torah, we would find certain actions so objectionable as to be unworthy of inclusion. We may, at that point, even consider the situation analogous to including a known murderer with a loaded gun in his pocket at our dinner table. I think we can both agree that that person has no place being included in our home, and we all draw the line at some later point. But why are we the one drawing the line at all, when G-d has already helped us out with that? Could we perhaps be too quick to include merely because our surrounding culture has deemed homosexuality a matter of equal preference and acceptance of that lifestyle a measure of one’s normality? America tells us to “get with the program,” so we accept homosexuals. If they tell us to accept adulterers in a few years, will that also be something we can accept? We’re getting close – I read an article in the New York Times a month ago arguing that we should forget marriage altogether and accept adultery as a given. And another article I read argues for 20-year marriage contracts from the get-go. Is it time to include these ideas and their innovators in our Shuls and communities?

Anyway, I understand the difficulty and delicacy of this issue and wanted to share my thoughts. Perhaps the old saying that “one must not be so open-minded that his brain falls out” is worthy of inclusion in our consideration of this and similar issues.

With full and abiding respect, if not envy, for your surplus of Ahavat Yisrael,

Leib Zalesch

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