A Tale of Two Rabbis

My friend David Blankenhorn has been exploring the role of doubt in civil society:

“I am not saying that persons who are rarely troubled by doubt aren’t civil, or can’t be civil. I know from personal experience that this isn’t true.  Nor I am saying that doubtful people are always civil; again, I know that this is not true,” Blankenhorn writes.

“But for the doubting person . . . civility is like oxygen.  It’s personally necessary.  Why?  Because without it, I can’t get what I need.”

What does the doubting person need? “The wisdom of the other. . . As a doubting person, civility is more than being nice.  Civility is part of what allows me to eat what I must eat and drink what I must drink.”

Blankenhorn seems to be preoccupied primarily by the lack of doubt shown by opponents of gay marriage, not the lack of doubt demonstrated by gay marriage supporters.  For years though, David has fought the tendency of his fellow liberals to dismiss and demean the insights of conservatives. For years, he successfully crafted a movement for marriage that set political ideology to one side and allowed good people to think new thoughts about marriage together.

It was a remarkable creative achievement for marriage and for America.  It is one of the reasons I cannot dismiss my old friend now.

Why is Blankenhorn right now so disproportionately frustrated with the moral certainty of gay marriage opponents?  Part of the answer is that to him public opposition to gay marriage seems fueled by religious commandments opposing homosexual acts–commandments which in his view are neither rational nor subject to reason–while the movement for gay marriage is disproportionately driven by humanitarian concern for human suffering.

In the contest between truth and love posed by the gay marriage debate, David is most attracted to those of us who are willing to surrender certainty in order to show compassion.

Well, there’s something to be said for this. Moral certainty about suffering is one of the least epistemologically problematic kinds of certainty. Of all the things one “cannot not know,” our own human suffering has to be right up there.

So Blankenhorn offers his beaux ideal of a traditionalist clergyman:  Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of the National Synagogue in Washington D.C. who in December gave a sermon:  “Same-Sex Marriage in America: What Does Orthodox Judaism Say?”

Rabbi Herzfeld begins by acknowledging that the question of gay marriage is complicated and that good people disagree.  He acknowledges forthrightly that gay sex is prohibited by the Torah.  He says therefore, a gay Jew who seeks to live within Jewish law can only live abstinently and that an Orthodox Rabbi cannot marry same-sex couples.

But Rabbi Herzfeld also says that he can find no rational moral basis for these prohibitions.  Therefore, he posits that they are “chok”–a category of prohibitions in Jewish law “whose violation should not carry our outrage or moral disapproval.”

Marriage between two Jews of the same gender is no more a sin or a violation of the natural order than a Jew wearing wool and linen together.  It is expressly forbidden by God (to Jews), but we cannot pretend to know why.

On the question of civil gay marriage, Rabbi Herzfeld therefore pivots radically in a different direction:

Although Rabbi Herzfeld acknowledges there non-religious arguments against gay marriage, like those offered by Prof. Robby George, he does not engage them: “Ultimately, I believe that these arguments should be set aside because the risk of persecution of homosexuals is too great.”

At this moment, right where David Blankenhorn says he starts to breathe more freely, to feel he is in the air of pluralism and concern for the other, my stomach clenches:

Either gay marriage, or persecution, the good Rabbi proclaims.

Those are our choices?

Yes, says the good Rabbi, and he really means it:
“A secular society that denies Gay people the right to get married is a secular society that willy-nilly is creating the framework for persecution through an unstated moral attack upon Gay people. . . . One thing our own history has taught us to be super-sensitive to is that a theological case for persecution is but a short step to an actual, physical persecution.”
Rabbi Herzfeld sets aside the truth claims as mere “willy-nilly.”  What begins with an epistemological uncertainty ends with a powerful moral obligation to promote gay marriage.
“Because who are these Gay people? They are not the other. They are not distant. They are our family. . Whose job is it to raise a voice against the persecution of our own family? The holiday of Chanukah teaches us that it is our job: Each of us must say, ‘Anokhi e-ervenu, I will bear responsibility.’”
For David Blankenhorn (as I read him), this setting aside of abstract cognitive philosophical truth claims about marriage, in the name of standing with a fellow-sufferer, is awe-inspiring.
“And what I admire most of all, I think, is his humanitarianism.  When all is said and done, when all the facts have been examined and the arguments laid out, what it comes down to, for him, is simply the recognition of the other as a member of his family.   As a Christian (and I hope he won’t be bothered by me saying this), it reminds me of Jesus.”
That pivot of Rabbi Herzfeld’s from the question of “what is true?” to “who suffers?” is, for David, close to the heart of what makes religion admirable:

“I am not a scholar of religion and I’m a poor example indeed of Christianity, my own faith.  But I like to think that I can recognize, when I see one, a man who tries, in ways that others can admire, to do justice, loves mercy, and walk humbly with his God, and I think I just found one.”

As I read his words, I had a flashback to a conversation I had with David years ago in which he told me, “there is a hierarchy of suffering in a good society.”  I don’t think the phrase is his, nor can I recall the details but I do remember the flash of light that phrase set off in my head.

Part of a marriage culture is a moral code that recognizes there is a hierarchy of suffering. Better I suffer than my child, that code sternly commanded.   If necessary, suck it up and wait for death.  Better all adults accept some suffering in order to establish the norms and the institutions that protect other people’s children.

The code used to stigmatize unwed motherhood in much the same way it stigmatized homosexuality  (in ways I could not now bring myself to support, I hasten to add).

There were problems with that code, yes. (A great number of Christians explored those problems in the 19th Century, for example Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel “Ruth”).

But now we appear to have simply abandoned or inverted the hierarchy. Now we think it’s wrong to be mean to the mothers and so we let the little children suffer– “willy-nilly.”

The marriage debate focuses on happiness as an ideal, but, of course, beneath that is another question being sidestepped.

Gay marriage represents a decision about many things, but one of them is: whose suffering is front and center in our moral imagination about marriage?  Around whose suffering should marriage and its norms be built?

It’s worth our time to trace out this debate between the two Rabbis– and to follow David Blankenhorn’s train of thought because, of course, this is not just one smart man’s reaction–it is the deepest framing of the issue for many in America and it goes roughly like this:

Do not let your philosophical truths trample on human hearts.

If the choice is truth or love, choose love.

Yes, but can that really be a choice?

To say that in order to love we must bracket the question of truth is to say we cannot, in truth, love.
About the same time David was discovering Rabbi Herzfeld’s thought–or rejection of thought–another Rabbi was laying out a powerfully different case: one that tells us that the truths grounding marriage cannot be surrendered without doing violence to love for the other, including the most vulnerable.

France’s Chief Rabbi Gilles Bernheim wrote a public letter opposing gay marriage.

How did I stumble across his letter? Pope Benedict quoted Rabbi Bernheim in his own Christmas message to the Roman Curia this December.  (Prof. Robert Oscar Lopez translated part of it, along with much other interesting material in the French gay marriage debate—see links below).

Rabbi Bernheim begins by offering his bona fides, the grounding of his right to speak.
“I speak as a Rabbi, and more particularly as the High Rabbi of France.  . .  .As with all other Rabbis, I am a reader, a teacher and a commentator about texts of Jewish wisdom that are imprinted with a long tradition of dialogue, dialectic, and hermeneutics, in other words, a pluralistic tradition.

. . . My assumption of the right to speak is the expression reflected in the solidarity that ties me to the national community of which I am a part.  . . . If someone who is not Jewish wishes to listen to me, he will receive my point of view through the lens of his personal judgment, through his own value system, and through his own religious agnostic or atheist identity.  He shall be able to, if he wishes, recognize the wisdom in what I say and attribute to them a moral worth.”
What concerns Rabbi Bernheim is not Leviticus but Genesis.  Marriage, he says, is grounded in “the complementarity of man and woman” and the ways in which this complementarity serves the needs of children and society.  Rabbi Bernheim is concerned for, “the irreversible risk of a scrambling of genealogies, a confounding of statuses (the child-subject becoming the child as object) and of identities–confusion which is irreconcilable with the whole of society and losing its view of the general interest in order to benefit a tiny minority.”

Pondering this one paragraph reveals a substantial part of the cognitive disease of modern liberalism.  Liberal ideology unknowingly but institutionally and habitually sacrifices the needs of the many for the good of the few.  It understands public morality only as “justice” and justice primarily as the protection of the minority from the majority.

That is, social order and social norms present themselves to postmodern liberal eyes primarily as the suppression and repression of individual desire.  The individual is by definition a minority of one. When the individual being championed has one of the identities defined as being one of “the” minorities–the specially unjustly persecuted requiring protection–postmodern liberalism goes into overdrive. Equality is the sacred value around which it circles.

Rabbi Bernheim too seeks justice for gay people.  He condemns, “physical and verbal aggressions,” in, “the same way that I condemn and fight strongly against the acts and ideas that are racist and anti-Semitic.”

But for him the main question gay marriage raises is: What is marriage?  “Marriage is not only about recognizing love. It is the institution that expresses the bond between a man and a woman with the production of later generations.  It is the institution of the family, that is to say, a unit that creates a filial relation, directly, among its members.  Beyond the common life of two people, it organizes the life of a community comprising descendants and ascendants.  In this sense, it is a foundational act in the construction and stability both of individuals and of society.”

Because marriage is about the bond between the generations, redefining marriage as genderless requires redefining parents in the same genderless way.
“The term ‘parent’ is not neuter; it is sexed. Accepting the term ‘gay parenting’ means stripping the word ‘parent’ if [sic] its corporeal, biological, carnal meaning which is intrinsic to it.”

Marriage and family is not just about emotional relations (whether between the spouses or between parent and child.) “It is also and above all allowing the child to place itself with a chain of generations.”
This is the point of Rabbi Bernheim’s remarks which Pope Benedict pulled out; gay marriage is part of a movement to disembody human beings–to deny that the human body, which is not neuter, has meaning and to relocate our humanity in our own naked will.

“People dispute the idea that they have a nature, given to them by their bodily identity, that serves as a defining element of the human being,” Pope Benedict said. “They deny their nature and decide that it is not something previously given to them, but that they make it for themselves.”

Gay marriage is only the first wave of the institutionalization of this way of thinking about what it means to be a human being.

Rod Dreher recently wrote quite humorously about a controversy within the LGBT community about the “Cotton Ceiling.”  What is the cotton ceiling?  Is the requirement imposed by sponsors of lesbian sex parties that transgendered people with male genitalia wear underwear.

“Thanks. So, just to make sure I understand this, a trans woman with a penis, and who has no desire to have a sex change, is not male bodied – correct?,” one lesbian inquired of a transgender activist denouncing the Cotton Ceiling. S/he replied, “There is nothing inherently male about a woman’s body, unless she identified things about it as male herself. So, no, I do not consider trans women with penises to be male-bodied, unless that is how they identify.”

That is what is happening out there at the extremes, but of course at the centers of power, within the Ivy Leagues, the arguments are being taken quite seriously, as the New York Timesrecently revealed.

The University of Pennsylvania’s newly vibrant LGBTQUIA “queer” community was consciously created by the college’s admissions department:

“A decade ago, the L.G.B.T. Center (nestled amid fraternity houses) was barely used. But in 2010, the university began reaching out to applicants whose essays raised gay themes. Last year, the gay news magazine The Advocate ranked Penn among the top 10 trans-friendly universities, alongside liberal standbys like New York University,”

Culture-creation has a center; it is created by credentialed elites who create the small networks of credentialed culture-creators, through whom culturally powerful ideas and norm spread outwards.

For our purposes the two most important questions to pay attention to as we watch this new development unfold is: “who decides what is true?” and “whose suffering counts and what counts as suffering?”

The American youth pastor Andrew Root wrote a whole book about the ontological questions raised by marriage–made vivid for him through his own parents late-in-life divorce:

“My parents’ impending divorce made me feel thin, as if now that my parents’ marriage was disappearing, the divorce was becoming our shared identity, and I too was disappearing.

I existed only because my mother and father had become one, creating me out of the abundance of their covenant community. Now, standing amid the debris and shock of the collision that ended their marriage, all this felt up for grabs. If I was through their union, who could I be in their division?”
One blogger, a fellow youth minister and a fellow child of divorce, in reviewing Root’s book called this suffering, this ontological “hollowness” as “the pain that defined me.”

An anonymous French gay man, raised by two mothers whom he loved, described his response to the ontological suffering raised by gay marriage and divorce this way:

“If you really care about us, you should promote policies that urge a child’s mother and father to stay together, even if one half of that marriage is gay.

If you really care about us, you will tell our parents to put us before their sexual crusades, their carnal pleasures, or their irritations with the opposite sex.

If you really care about us, you will tell the gay community to stop using us. You will protect us from their agendas, their three-ring circuses, and their propaganda, too often starring us.”
Children of gay parents love them, he knows this personally.  Their family experiences are diverse, he also knows. But powerful cultural norms, he points out, do not allow children of gay parents to be honest–with themselves–about their suffering:

“I’ve known many children of gay parents.  In my experience, children of gay parents don’t talk about their situation honestly with each other, or with children of heterosexual parents.” By young adulthood, he says “It starts to become clear to the child of the gay parent that he or she lacks the connections and networking cache that children of traditional households can access.  As the child becomes an adult and considers what it means to become a parent in turn. . . . one looks more critically at what happened in one’s childhood, before one had the capacity to question the decisions of the gay couple that controlled one’s safety and health.  One begins to ask, ‘would I want to bring a child into the world and have them grow up as I did?’”
Many, he says, “do what I did in my mid-twenties: connect with the missing parent.  Befriending my father–I can’t say we ever became like father and son–changed my life tremendously for the better. He came through for me and we made up for lost time; I felt I knew who I was after moving in with him in my early twenties. . .”

This gay man, raised by lesbians, finally knew who he was only by knowing his father, who was one half of his being, one half of his place in the great chain of being.

“By speaking openly, I don’t mean performing poetry at Gay Pride or going into court to testify in a gay marriage lawsuit. Those are performances.  I did those too,” he says. These performances are partly products of the child’s powerful need to please their parents–and to retain membership in their parents’ community of love:

“Imagine you are me, or one of the others in such a situation. You love your parents and don’t want to disparage them. Nonetheless, at some point they placed you in a situation that they knew was going to be painful, about which you were going to have to be doggedly defensive if not secretive. . . Something was more important–getting away from the opposite sex, moving in with someone they were in love with proving a point, winning a battle, having it all, healing their scars. Those things were simply more important than you were. That hurts but there’s no point in pretending it isn’t true.”
If this gay man’s voice resonates it is because it is the same voice as so many children of divorce–dragooned into a culture war about the validity of their parents’ choices, struggling to distinguish between their own needs and experiences and that of their parents, both the one who stayed and the one who left.

I grew up as part of generation in which bashing your parents’ behavior and values in the name of your freedom was considered a social good–in the great hierarchy of suffering they were supposed to put up with whatever suffering their children’s beefing and airing of the family laundry caused.  Filial piety was not, in my experience, much prized in American society.

For children of gay parents, though, the postmodern hierarchy of suffering demands they serve their parents’ civil rights crusade, as this gay man points out:

“If you doubt your parents’ imprudence, you aren’t just being a typical rebellious adolescent. You are a homophobe and a bigot, simply for seeing your parents’ selfishness for what it was. Other children can run off and join the circus or declare themselves revolutionaries against their parent’s bourgeois ideals; but you cannot engage in such natural stages of self-awakening, for your gay parent would forever brand you a victimizer, a fascist, a traitor to a cause you never asked to be part of.”
This anonymous gay man ends his open letter with as much moral certainty as Rabbi Herzfeld, born of his own knowledge of his own suffering and his desire to stand with the suffering of others:

“.. . Perhaps I am cruel, but I feel the indignation that pacifists felt when George W. Bush invaded Iraq in their name.

Presidents Hollande and Obama, do not send more children into the battlefield of gay politics in my name.  No more.”
Part of the problem with dividing up truth and love is the heart alone cannot tell us how to organize the hierarchy of suffering inherent in living as a human being–that is a being with infinite desire but very finite capacities.

The heart responds to the suffering it sees, but where first should we look?

Should the desire of the child to know his mother and father be subordinated to adults’ desire for satisfying sexual intimacy and the social recognition of his or her relationships as marriage?
Rabbi Herzfeld is bracketing the very question of suffering that Rabbi Bernheim is looking at front and center.

Chief Rabbi Bernheim in turn is bracketing the question of homosexuality, putting to one side the suffering of gay people, to look at another set of needs, pains, and goods.

Calling the one love and the other truth is simply another way of bracketing the most important question:

Where should we look?

Let me give you a concrete example of the dynamic to which I am pointing here.

Last October I debated gay marriage at Evergreen College, in Olympia Washington.  Evergreen is a taxpayer-funded college founded in the 1970s to be uberprogressive–they do not confine students by channeling them into established majors for example.

The people who hosted me were very kind, in spite of my backward and discriminatory views on gay marriage and very proud of themselves for hosting a debate on “marriage equality.”  The good news is that there are forces even in that progressive bastion who view the shutdown of intellectual discussion on hot button topics as an educational problem, a rebuke to the idea of a university.

Yet but a few weeks later I noticed a story broke at Evergreen College about a transgender “controversy.”

A 45-year-old undergraduate at Evergreen who goes by the name of Colleen Francis but who is anatomically male, was using the women’s locker room to dress and undress before using the swimming pool.

Evergreen, in its liberality, permits the community to use its pool, including schoolchildren between the ages of 6 and 17.  Parents of some of those schoolgirls vigorously objected to their daughters being exposed to male genitalia as they dressed and undressed in the allegedly women’s locker room and filed a police report:

‘[A mother] reported her daughter was upset because she observed a person at the women’s locker room naked and displaying male genitalia,’ a police report filed by a 17-year-old’s mother in September read.

A second report filed by an outside swim coach stated having ‘observed Colleen sitting with her legs open with her male genitalia showing’ in the sauna before telling her she had to leave and calling police.

Colleen Francis was aggressively unconcerned about these parental concerns. S/he morally condemned the parents unequivocally according the Daily Mail, “’This is not 1959 Alabama. We don’t call the police for drinking from the wrong water fountain,’ Ms Francis, the student at the heart of the issue, spoke out to KIRO.

The “Cotton ceiling” view is not really some extreme outlier, it is already being institutionalized by people who are supported by powerful and credentialed voices.  And people who object are already being informed their views about calling a human being with a penis a man are example of discriminatory and bigoted thinking.

Evergreen College had to decide whose suffering and distress counted.  And it has sided unequivocally with its 45-year-old transgendered undergraduate, Colleen Francis.  Now the College has decided to make an accommodation at least for now–by putting up a curtained area behind which the little girls can change.

Let us as Rabbi Herzfeld bracket the truth claims for a moment, let’s look at the question in this concrete instance: what do love and compassion require?

Love and compassion for whom?

Look, people will say, the sky isn’t going to fall because little girls are dressing and undressing in front of people with penises. The social norm or instinct that it is important to protect little girls from naked men is a general norm.  It’s extremely unlikely that Colleen Francis or most transgendered people are pedophiles.

But on what basis can we support a norm that is generally predictive against a minority of one?

Evergreen’s answer infuriates me:  the little girls can all go behind a curtain and make the problem disappear, apparently.  (At least until Colleen or someone else decides she’s entitled to go behind the curtain, that the existence of the curtain as much as the door labeled ‘women” on the locker room, is an affront to her equality.)

Whose distress are we going to focus on in this concrete case?  Little girls who are upset by getting naked in front of people with penises?  The distraught mothers concerned that their understandable desire to protect their daughters is supported or not supported by the community?  Surely these people can get used to it, over time.  Their instinctive “yuk” reaction can be re-trained because it hurts Colleen’s freedom.

Who is required to accommodate whom? Whose suffering and distress are we going to prioritize?

I say this as someone who is not unsympathetic to what has to be defined as a genuine mental illness: to believe one’s self is different from one’s body must be horrifically painful.  All kinds of accommodations, I am willing to believe, should be made to relieve Colleen’s suffering.  Of all the things you gotta have, somewhere to use the bathroom has to be right up there.

I know if I were to bring up this question to Evan Wolfson or Andrew Sullivan he would say I’m changing the subject.  The subject is not gender, its norms, and its relationship to a sane marriage culture.  The subject is only what harm can I demonstrate comes from reliving the distress of gay people by deeming their relationships marriage.

This is the truth claim I do not believe, the reason Rabbi Herzfeld and David Blankenhorn are so wrong.

Love alone cannot explain why the naked man who thinks he is a woman is more important than the little girls–and their mothers–who are distressed.

At some point the intersection of truth and love requires us to decide: what is true?  Whose suffering matters?

To bracket truth is to say that in truth we cannot love.

Thank you for listening to me.  By doing so you are demonstrating (whether you agree or not) the importance of figuring out how to combine truth and love.
Sources

French Anonymous, “Not in My Name”  http://englishmanif.blogspot.com/2013/01/global-francophone-rallyletter-from.html

Pope Benedict, “Christmas Greetings to the Roman Curia,”  Dec. 21 2102 http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/speeches/2012/december/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20121221_auguri-curia_en.html

David Blankenhorn, “Doubt, Sweet Doubt”  http://familyscholars.org/2012/09/28/doubt-sweet-doubt/

David Blankenhorn, “Rabbi Shmuel Herzefeld’s Sermon on Same-Sex Marriage: An Appreciation,” Jan. 7 2013  http://familyscholars.org/2013/01/07/rabbi-shmuel-herzfelds-sermon-on-same-sex-marriage-an-appreciation/

Daily Mail “Parents’ outrage as transgendered woman is permitted to use the women’s locker room ‘exposing himself to little girls’” Nov. 3, 2012  http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2227562/Colleen-Francis-Outrage-transgendered-woman-permitted-use-college-womens-locker-room-exposing-himself.html#ixzz2I9ct7Q7E

Rod Dreher,  Jan 14, 2013 “Of Cotton Ceilings,  and Puzzled Lesbians”  http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/of-cotton-and-ceilings-lesbians/

Robert Oscar Lopez, translation of Rabbi Bernheim’s letter  http://englishmanif.blogspot.com/2013/01/welcome-to-this-new-portal-for-french.html

Andrew Root, “Why Divorces Calls Children’s Existence into Question,” Christianity Today July 20, 2012. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2012/july-august/why-divorce-calls-childrens-existence-into-question.html

Michael Schulman, NYT Jan. 9 2013 “Generation LGBTQIA” http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/10/fashion/generation-lgbtqia.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Paul Sheneman, “Going Deeper with Andrew Root’s Children of Divorce”  http://www.immersejournal.com/spiritual-formation/going-deeper-with-andy-roots-children-of-divorce-2/

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