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Seeing the Rainbow in Grey Rather Than Black and White: LGBT & the Orthodox Community

on Tuesday, June 28 2016. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

I often find myself envious of people who live in a world of black and white and for whom everything seems so simple and clear. It would much easier not to struggle, feel torn or grapple with complexity and uncertainty. And yet, being truthful to Torah and to ourselves often demands not taking the easy way out, but finding the courage, strength, conviction and sensitivity to live in the grey and bear the tension inherent in a sophisticated and nuanced approach to complicated issues.

One example that is increasingly confronting us in Jewish communal life is our approach to LGBT individuals and the LGBT community. Recently, I spoke to a group of observant teenagers about this issue and began by asking them: If a close friend were to invite you to a same gender marriage, would you attend? I was startled when every single hand in the group went up, with a few saying that they don’t necessarily approve of the lifestyle, but their dedication and loyalty to their friend and desire for their happiness dictate that they participate.

To illustrate to the students just how rapidly the world has evolved on this issue, I informed them that although President Obama currently describes opposition to same gender marriage as a form of discrimination, he was on record as opposing same gender marriage when he first ran for President. At the time, he said, “I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman. Now, for me as a Christian, it is also a sacred union. God’s in the mix.”

While for some advocates of same gender marriage change has not been fast enough, society has actually evolved at light speed on this issue. Until 1974, the American Psychiatric Association listed homosexuality as a mental illness in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Today, people are publicly celebrated, applauded and admired for “coming out” and for proudly embracing their identity and orientation.

The Jewish community in general, and the observant community in particular, are not insulated from this ongoing process. While statistics vary, somewhere between 1.6% (NHIS study) – 3.4% (Gallup poll) of Americans identify as LGBT. Make no mistake: that means that many Orthodox synagogues and schools likely have members and students who are struggling with their identities and with finding their place in a Torah community. In the coming weeks, months and years, our community will surely grapple with questions of shul membership, mazel tov announcements and receiving honors. Our schools will need to formulate policies on acceptances, shabbatons arrangements, and more.

Rather than continue to grapple, some in the community have taken radically opposite but equally confident approaches to these issues. On one side, one rabbi wrote, “It is a Mitzvah to come out!” Another declared, “Gay and Orthodox: An oxymoron no more.” And, most recently, yet another is quoted as saying that “LGBT must be welcomed in Orthodox communities and that one of the ‘great moments’ in his synagogue was when same-sex couples with children were accepted as full members.”

On the other side, there are websites and newspapers that refer to LGBT related events, including murder at a parade in Israel and a massacre in Orlando, with the label “to’eiva,” abomination, in the headline. Individuals flippantly and cruelly talk about those who identify as LGBT as disgusting, calling on them to undergo conversion therapy and “become normal,” and describe them as abominations.

Calling for categorical inclusion, acceptance and accommodation or, conversely, for absolute rejection, alienation and expulsion is convenient and expedient, but seems to me to be an unjust and unfair copout. Our Torah values demand that we approach this issue, like others, with nuance, sensitivity and conviction, even if it means living with the ongoing discomfort of tension and complexity.

The Torah’s prohibitions in these areas are incontrovertible and non-negotiable. All the sympathy and sensitivity in the world cannot move us to be matir issurim, to permit that which our sacred Torah forbids. Undeniably, our rabbis have been tremendously critical of those who unabashedly flaunt a lifestyle inconsistent with halacha.

Yet, it is also unquestionable that there are no perfect people and that everyone struggles with some aspect of the rigors and demands of halacha. We have 613 mitzvos that translate into thousands of Jewish laws, and we generally don’t define, accept or reject people based on their transgression of one or more of them. Granted, as this issue is not merely one of behavior or private action, but for many individuals, lies at the core of their self-identity, formulating our community’s approach is inevitably more complicated. But, nonetheless, it is critically important to remember that the Torah forbids action—the verb—and doesn’t even recognize LGBT identity as a noun.

The stakes for how we evolve—not with regard, of course, to core halachic standards and principles, but in how we apply them in our changing world—are tremendously high. To its credit, the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest umbrella organization of Orthodox rabbis in the world, dedicated a day of its conference this week to this very topic. The conversation instantly became very real and personal when we heard from a panel of men and women who were raised Orthodox and are learned, sincere and committed to a halachic life, but who no longer deny or hide their gay orientation.

They each had their own stories, backgrounds and experiences, but the common themes among them were the depression they suffered and the bullying and the abuse they experienced. One of them referenced that they struggled to fight off suicidal thoughts. All of them spoke lovingly and respectfully of the Torah community they long to find a place in and even went so far as to acknowledge the limitations to their full integration. A mental health professional spoke, as did several rabbis, who have dealt extensively with these issues and who offered a Torah perspective.

While the conversation did not end with conclusive answers, one thing is abundantly clear to me. We have a responsibility to Hashem and His Torah, to those who identify as LGBT, and to ourselves, to not take an inauthentic, pandering or cruel way out. Triumphant statements of breakthroughs or headlines with rhetoric and hate will not positively contribute to carrying out our awesome responsibility to deal with this issue sensibly, with sensitivity and with steadfast commitment to Torah and halacha.

The stakes are extremely high because it is not only the LGBT community that is carefully watching the policies we set and the statements we issue. Only approximately 2% of the population is LGBT, but many of the other 98% are almost equally interested in how we handle this issue that they care deeply about, even if they are not directly affected by it. Living with the tension and seeking to strike this balance will be critical to remain relevant and compelling to the next generation.

We may wish this issue had not evolved in this way and that we never had to confront this new reality, but it is here. Ignoring it or mishandling it won’t make it go away, but will likely make many Jews go away from our community and from an observant way of life.

As this conversation continues and policies need to be set, we must find ways to stay unwaveringly and unapologetically true to halacha and Torah while also being sensitive, caring, loving and welcoming, to the extent we can, for everyone. If we are inclusive, it is not because society dictates it as an absolute value, but because seeing tzelem Elokim in all and finding a space for them, no matter their particular struggles, is a Torah value. And if we must set limits, it is not because we are homophobic or reject basic civil rights, but because Torah, with its infinite wisdom and timeless sagacity, demands these principles and boundaries. Striking this balance, living with these tensions and being in a state of discomfort is not easy.   Being in the grey often feels increasingly lonely. Nonetheless, I believe it is our sacred duty and obligation now, perhaps more than ever.

Getting our communal policies right will take time, and we need not feel pressured by the frantic pace of societal transitions around us that want to see changes yesterday. We must move slowly, exceedingly cautiously and extremely delicately.

In the meantime, while the conversation continues, there are two contrasting sensitivities that I think we need to maintain. First, while it goes without saying that we should always choose our words carefully, be respectful and never communicate in a derogatory or disparaging manner, it is especially important to be careful how we talk about this issue. Remember, you never know what someone you are talking to or their family member, friend or neighbor is going through. Second, especially given the Torah’s position and halacha’s demands, remain respectful of those with traditional attitudes or who want to insulate their children from conversations on this topic.

As a community, we need to deliberate carefully and consult with our greatest poskim (halachik decisors), leaders, mental health professionals and stakeholders on all sides. Taking shortcuts, on the other hand, may imperil our quest to strike a faithful balance between allowing the entirety of our community to be true to themselves and maintaining our unequivocal dedication to the authenticity of Torah.

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Muhammad Ali and Donald Trump: Borrowed But Never Owned

on Wednesday, June 22 2016. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

Once upon a time, becoming a Bar Mitzvah meant coming of age and bearing greater spiritual responsibility and accountability. For many today, turning thirteen means become a brand with your own logo designed for the occasion and yarmulkas, clothing, and gear bearing your special insignia. Before protesting, please understand: I am not suggesting there is anything wrong with this trend as it is all in good fun and adds to the excitement and enjoyment of this major milestone. However, it should not be lost on us that this phenomenon is likely the result of a larger trend in society today.

In 2004, long before emerging as a presumptive nominee for President, ABC News did a story called Donald Trump: The Genius of Self-Promotion that describes how Trump built up his brand and status as an elite businessman through self-promotion, boasting, and bragging. Jeffrey Sonnenfeld of the Yale School of Business Management opined, “Of all the things he’s developed, the biggest thing he’s developed is that image.”

Muhammad Ali’s recent passing elicited overwhelming reverence, admiration and affection, despite his being one of the most bombastic and pompous athletes or public figures of all times. Consider a sampling of his famous quotes:

“I’m young; I’m handsome; I’m fast. I can’t possibly be beat.”

“It’s hard to be humble when you’re as great as I am.”

“I am the greatest, I said that even before I knew I was.”

“It’s not bragging if you can back it up.”

“I’m not the greatest, I’m the double greatest.”

“I’m the most recognized and loved man that ever lived cuz there weren’t no satellites when Jesus and Moses were around, so people far away in the villages didn’t know about them.”

“At home I am a nice guy: but I don’t want the world to know. Humble people, I’ve found, don’t get very far.”

Ali may have been talented, charming and entertaining, but on humility he was absolutely wrong.

In the seventh of his thirteen principles of faith, the Rambam writes:

We believe that [Moshe Rabbeinu] is the father of all the prophets before and after him, all of whom were beneath him in stature. He was chosen above all mankind, achieving a greater knowledge of the Almighty than anyone before or since. Moshe Rabbeinu reached a level that surpasses human attainment and approximates the angelic. There was no barrier that he did not penetrate, no physical limitation that hindered him, and no imperfection large or small [to impede him]. In achieving this [level], he lost his sensual and imaginative faculties; his drives and desires ceased, leaving only his pure intellect. Concerning this it is said that Moshe communicated with God without any angelic intermediary.

Essential to our faith is the belief that Moshe was the greatest person to ever live or that ever will live. What enabled and empowered Moshe to actualize human potential more than anyone else? How did he achieve this unparalleled lofty level that can never be and will never be replicated?

Rav Chaim Volozhiner (Ruach Chaim 1:1) suggests that the answer can be found in our Parsha (Bamidbar 12:3) which describes, “V’haish Moshe anav m’od mikol adam” “And the man Moshe was more humble than any other person.” Moshe’s modesty and unpretentiousness allowed him to see himself as a vessel to serve the Almighty, improve the world and be of service to others. He had absolutely no ulterior motive of elevating his brand or increasing his name recognition or his net worth. His pure intent and practice combined with his unsurpassed potential made him the ideal medium for God to communicate through.

Humility for Moshe did not mean denying his unique talents, abilities, and opportunities. It simply meant recognizing that they are gifts and blessings from the Almighty and that they obligate rather than entitle, they create expectations, rather than fame and notoriety. Moshe understood that whatever gifts we have are on loan. They are borrowed but never owned and can be taken from us at any moment.

Chuck Knoblauch was a Rookie of the Year, won several World Series rings, earned a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards and went to four All-Star games. But as a second baseman for the New York Yankees in 2000 he shockingly and inexplicably lost the ability to throw the ball from second base to first base, something every little leaguer is capable of doing. After trying different positions to solve the mysterious problem, he never regained his previous ability and ultimately retired early from baseball.

Brian Johnson is the lead singer of AC/DC, considered one of the most legendary rock bands of all time. In 2003 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. A few months ago, while in the middle of a concert tour, he had to pull out and suddenly retire at the instruction of doctors who warned him he could suffer complete loss of hearing. Johnson said, “I’ve had a pretty good run. I’ve been in one of the best bands in the world.”

Even Ali’s extraordinary athletic skills were borrowed but not owned. After retiring more than once, he was forced to retire for good following a unanimous 10-round decision loss to Trevor Berbick.

Muhammad Ali was not “more recognized and loved than Moses” because there were no satellites. It was because while Ali and Trump built careers by being self-promoting, Moshe was the most humble person of all time. It is exactly because he was humble and knew that his gifts were borrowed but never owned, that he in fact “got much farther” than anyone that ever was or will be.

Though many in the public are enamored and impressed with those who excel in self-promotion, make no mistake, our personal and private relationships need humility, not hubris, modesty, not self-marketing. To be humble, you need not deny what you are good at or the blessings and gifts in your life. You simply have to be mindful that the talents and skills you employed towards any achievement or accomplishment come from Above and can be taken away as easily as they were given. Humility means living with a sense of gratitude and like Moshe, a sense of obligation and responsibility to use our gifts in the service of God and our fellow man.

Moshe, not Muhammad Ali was in fact “the greatest that ever lived,” and it is largely because he never spoke or acted as if he was better or superior to anyone else.

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To Achieve Unity, You Don’t Have to Like Everyone, But You Must Love Them

on Thursday, June 9 2016. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

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On June 6, over 2,000 people attended the Boca Raton Jewish community Unity Day Event.

These remarks were delivered there.

“Can he unite the party?” “Can she unite the party?” Everyone is talking about unity these days. But it is a unity with an agenda, to win in November. Tonight, we gather with no agenda other than to experience Jewish unity and, in so doing, to be winners each and every day.

I want to share with you what I believe is the secret to achieving unity. The key to achieve harmony in our greater families and to realize unity in our community and our people is that we must learn to love everyone, even those that we don’t like.

We all have people we don’t like. Their personality grates on us, their lifestyle may offend us, maybe their political orientation or sense of style or their decisions disappoint us and we cannot relate to them whatsoever. We don’t like them. And that is ok. Nowhere does it say we have to like everyone.

However, “v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha,” it does say we have to love our neighbor as ourselves. What is the difference between liking and loving? How can I be commanded to love? After all, love is an emotion, not something you can simply legislate or regulate.

Like is an emotion. I like people I admire, I like those that I share similarities with, or whom I relate to or connect with. Love, however, is not an emotion; it is a decision. Love is a verb. It doesn’t describe how I feel about you; it describes how I treat you. To love someone is to be loyal, devoted, courteous, kind, thoughtful, giving, and caring. The Hebrew word for love is ahava, which comes from the root hav, which means to give. Love is the result of giving to another, investing ourselves in another, and building bridges that connect us to one another.

Almost everyone has at least one member of his or her family, sometimes immediate and sometimes distant, who we don’t like. We may not approve of their lifestyle or their choices or we can’t stand their ego or personality. But nevertheless, despite not liking them, we know that we must love them. After all, that is what it means to be a family. A family practices loyalty and can expect commitment and kindness even among the members who don’t like one another.

We, the Jewish people, all 13 million of us in the world, are one big family. We likely don’t approve of, or admire, or enjoy, or like, every member of our great big family, and that is alright. We don’t have to like them everyone, but we must love them all. That’s what ahavas yisroel, loving all Jews, is all about.

We often hear of a call for greater tolerance, but tolerance is not what we need. We tolerate a bad rash or we tolerate the side effects of medicine or we tolerate a poor Wi-Fi connection. We must never tolerate people. We must love them and we must love them even when—especially when—we don’t like them.

We as a people were never at a higher level spiritually than when we came out of Egypt. We merited witnessing the open hand of the Almighty as He executed the ten plagues and split the sea and yet He didn’t give us his precious Torah at that time. There was something missing from our collective character and practice. It was only when we stood as a nation at the base of the Mount Sinai k’ish echad b’lev echad, as one person with one heart, that God was ready to give us His sacred Torah.

This coming weekend we will celebrate that seminal event that changed the world when we re-accept the Torah. The prerequisite now, as it was then, was the capacity to show God, our father, that we get along with and love all of His children, whether we like them or not. There can be no holiday of Shavuos without the commitment to unity first.

Rav Aryeh Levin was known as the tzadik of Yerushalayim, the righteous man of Jerusalem. He was incredibly pious, kind, and a great scholar. He lived in the quaint area of Nachlaot, right behind the shuk, Machaneh Yehudah. There was a young man who grew up in the neighborhood whom R’ Aryeh knew well but he felt that the boy was avoiding him. One day, they bumped into each other in the narrow alleys of Nachlaot and Rav Aryeh confronted him and said, I can’t help but feel you are avoiding me, tell me how are you. The young man sheepishly replied that it was true, he was avoiding the great rabbi as he had grown up observant but had chosen to walk away from observant life altogether.

He said, “Rebbe, I was so embarrassed to meet you since I have taken off my kippa and am no longer observant.” Rav Aryeh took the young man’s hand into his own and said the following. “My dear Moshe. Don’t worry. I am a very short man. I can only see what is in your heart, I cannot see what is on your head.”

As we count down to receive the Torah anew, let’s pledge to be a little shorter like R’ Aryeh Levin. Let’s only look at what is in our brothers’ and sisters’ hearts and not what is on their heads or anything else that is external. Let us strive not just to tolerate one another, but to practice love even with those we don’t like and in that way get back to that lofty level of one people with one heart.

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Are You Really Out of Time or Have You Just Convinced Yourself You are Too Busy?

on Monday, June 6 2016. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

This article appeared in Mishpacha Magazine the week of June 1st

Recently, my six-year-old daughter was filling out a fun journal she had received as a gift. After answering standard questions like “who is your best friend,” “what is your favorite food,” “what color do you like the most,” she came across the question, “who is your arch nemesis.” A bizarre question for a children’s journal. Understandably, she had no idea what was being asked, so she approached my wife, asking her what arch nemesis means.

“Of course you don’t have one,” my wife explained, “but arch nemesis means an enemy. Who do you not get along with?”

My daughter ran off to continue to fill out the journal. Later, my wife saw the journal lying around and opened it up to see how my daughter had answered. She was astounded at what she saw. In the blank for “who is your arch nemesis,” my six-year-old had written “the yetzer hara.”

While many of us are much older and more experienced, we fail to acknowledge or identify our arch nemesis – the yetzer hara. Some of us have the yetzer hara to eat unhealthy food or excessive portions; others struggle with greed or jealousy. Some have the yetzer hara to gossip and others to talk during davening. Some have the yetzer hara to bend the truth and others to lose their patience.

These and other common yetzer haras have been well identified and much ink has been spilled providing encouragement and strategies to overcome them. But there is a yetzer hara whose temptation and seduction is only growing in our generation that not only have we failed to conquer, but in many cases we have failed to even name.

While technology was supposed to give us more flexibility and free time, most people in today’s technological era feel they simply have no time. How many of us say we want to exercise, to read, to learn, to enjoy family activities, and to pursue a myriad of other goals, but claim that we have no time?

If you feel that way, you are not alone. A December Gallup poll found that 61 percent of working Americans said they did not have enough time to do the things they wanted to do. Ask someone how he or she is doing and you are likely to hear, “busy,” “crazy busy,” “insanely busy.” We have convinced ourselves that we are so busy that we simply have no time. But is that true?

To find out, time management expert and best-selling author Laura Vanderkam spent the past 12 months studying how she used her time during the busiest year of her life. On a spreadsheet broken into half-hour blocks, she logged the 8,784 hours that make up a leap year. In a recent article in the New York Times, “The Busy Person’s Lies,” she shared her results. It turns out that the stories she told herself about where her time went weren’t always true: her life was not quite as hectic as she had thought, and she suspected the same was true for others.

“One study from the June 2011 Monthly Labor Review found that people estimating 75-plus hour workweeks were off, on average, by about 25 hours,” she writes. “I once had a young man tell me he was working 180 hours a week — impossible, considering the fact that this is 12 more hours than a week contains — but he felt tired and overworked, as we all sometimes do, and chose a high number to quantify this feeling.” She encourages us to track our time so that we can be honest and accurate with ourselves about how we use it.

“Life is full, and life has space,” she concludes. “There is no contradiction.”

Long before time management experts existed, Rav Yisrael Salanter came to the same conclusion. He was once approached by someone who asked, “Rebbe, I only have fifteen minutes a day to learn. What should I learn? Chumash? Halachah? Jewish thought?”

“Learn mussar,” Rav Yisroel Salanter replied, “and then you will come to realize that you have a lot more than fifteen minutes a day to learn.”

So if we really have the time to do the things we say we want to do, why do we convince ourselves that we don’t?

A Chassidishe Rebbe was once walking with his chassidim when it began to rain. He stopped, looked up, and turned to his disciples and asked, “How do you know the sky wants to rain?” He then answered, “Because it is raining.”

Not understanding his point, the students asked him to explain. “If you want to know if someone wants to do something,” the rebbe answered, “see if they are doing it. We do what we want to be doing. If we aren’t doing it, we don’t really want to.”

The Yid HaKadosh, Rav Yaakov Yitzchak Rabinowitz, points out that we sometimes confuse wanting to do something with wanting to want to do something (Niflaos HaYehudi page 40). He notes that even the person who has only attained the level of wanting to want to be doing the right things is worthy of being called an oveid Hashem. However, to reach even higher levels and to realize the best version of ourselves, we must find the drive and the discipline to transition from wanting to want, to actually wanting. Only then will we realize that we truly do have time for what we want to do, and we will do it.

Sometimes that transition just has to happen; other times we can inspire it and move it along. Either way, it is important not to give in to our arch nemesis, the yetzer hara, and erroneously believe that the only thing holding us back is lack of time.

Sefiras Ha’omer is a 49-day journey to time awareness. It is a system that encourages us to literally or figuratively log our time and have the discipline and strength to fill in the spaces with what we claim we truly want to be doing.

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