Community and diversity
By now you have probably heard about the controversy in Bergen County surrounding the Jewish Standard’s publication of a same-sex wedding announcement. No? Then you must have missed the coverage in The New York Times, The Star-Ledger, Bergen Record, and in dozens of other newspapers and blogs as far away as Kansas City, Orlando, and, scout’s honor, Australia.
To recap: In its Sept. 24 issue, the Jewish weekly ran its first announcement of a same-sex wedding ceremony. The upcoming nuptials between two Jewish professionals are to be performed by a Conservative rabbi at a Reform synagogue on Long Island.
In its next issue, citing complaints from Orthodox rabbis, the paper issued an apology for the “pain and consternation” the announcement had caused members of the Orthodox community and promised not to run similar announcements again.
The counter-reaction was swift and furious. The Standard’s website was swamped with hundreds of comments overwhelmingly in support of same-sex wedding announcements. The Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism put out a statement in support of a “free press” and declared that “no single sector of the Jewish community may decide for all what is an acceptable practice.”
The North Jersey Board of Rabbis, representing mostly non-Orthodox rabbis, issued a statement urging the Standard to “follow the example of Jewish newspapers like the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent to publish the diverse announcements of this diverse Jewish community.”
Faced with this backlash to the backlash, the Standard’s publisher issued yet another statement, saying the paper “may have acted too quickly in issuing the follow-up statement.” In its latest issue, the Standard features an enlightening community conversation on homosexuality, including interviews with a range of rabbis and community leaders, dueling op-eds from a Conservative rabbi and an Orthodox rabbi, and more letters on the topic.
I felt for my colleagues at the Standard, whom I’ve known and admired for years. We ran our first announcement of a same-sex marriage in January and received not a single comment, pro or con. Yet none of our editions serves an Orthodox community with the size and clout of Teaneck’s, where the Standard is published. Our policy reflects the fact that same-sex marriage and commitment ceremonies are sanctioned and blessed by the Reform and Reconstructionist movements and their rabbis, and that Conservative rabbis are permitted to perform gay weddings and commitment ceremonies. In the non-Orthodox world, gay Jews are increasingly part of the mainstream.
Our role, as we see it, is to reflect the largest possible range of practices and beliefs.
Which isn’t to say, of course, that we don’t respect Orthodox perspectives, or that we weigh the “rightness” of a position based on the size or influence of a constituency. If you are striving to be pluralistic, which we are, you have to listen and respect the voices across the spectrum, and provide room for their expression.
(I should also note that there is no such thing as the Orthodox perspective, on same-sex marriage or any issue. In the past few weeks, Avi Shafran of the fervently Orthodox Agudath Israel of America has quoted midrash suggesting that gay marriage was to blame for the biblical flood and that it shows disrespect for “humanity”; meanwhile, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach acknowledges that while homosexuality violates the Jewish understanding of the “divine will,” he doesn’t think anyone is being harmed “when two unattached, consenting adults are in a relationship.”)
But there does come a point when, after respectfully hearing all sides of an issue, you have to make a decision, and someone is bound to feel disappointed that their position has not been adopted. And to the chagrin of the Orthodox, our commitment to pluralism often leads us to present phenomena and perspectives that will offend them.
For example, some Orthodox readers and leaders tell me they can’t have our newspaper in their homes or schools because of certain subjects we treat as normative. These include the liberal movements’ more welcoming attitudes toward interfaith marriage, the Reform movement’s adoption of patrilineal descent, the ordination of gay rabbis, and gender egalitarianism. It’s not merely that some readers disagree with these positions — they see it as the responsibility of a Jewish newspaper to either ignore them or condemn them.
I appreciate the consternation some of these issues cause to traditionalists. But it’s unfair to ask a Jewish newspaper, attached to no movement or religious stream, to block its doors to people or practices that have been embraced by mainstream Jewish communities and their authorities. Yes, there are parameters, but in the end, we’re trying to present the community as it is, not how any one side thinks it should be.
And yet every community is different, and I can’t say for certain what I would have done in the Standard’s place. I don’t know the pressures that were brought to bear on its owners, financial or otherwise; regardless, no newspaper relishes offending a large portion of its readership.
But the Standard ended up where it probably should have started, with a community dialogue that recognized the range of deeply felt perspectives and red lines — and honored the very idea of community.