Does liberal Judaism benefit from seeing gays as the ‘other’?

Representations of sameness help prompt empathy. But depictions of difference may help us come to terms with our phobias and prejudices so that empathy can actually take root.

The recent law in New York state allowing gays and lesbians to marry took effect on Sunday. With hundreds of couples tying the knot on that day alone, and with the New York Times Style Section devoted to gay weddings, the legalization of same-sex marriage in New York has renewed important dialogue among Jewish religious leaders about GLBT inclusion.

I spoke recently with Rabbi Steven Greenberg, a senior teaching fellow at Clal (The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership), author of Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition and named by Newsweek/Daily Beast as one of the top 50 influential American rabbis.

As an Orthodox rabbi who is openly gay, one of Greenberg’s aims is to help ensure that GLBT individuals have a place in Jewish religious life.

Traveling to Jewish communities around North America (I am pleased that he is slated to visit my synagogue in September), Greenberg gives talks with titles like “Welcoming the Stranger.”

But I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this approach. I pressed him on his use of the term “stranger” to refer to GLBT individuals. Isn’t that in itself exclusionary?

Greenberg’s response: “Welcoming the stranger, in its first blush, has an element of self-defeat in it. But over time, the hope is that these differences lose their shock value, that we notice them lightly, like one notices a person with red hair.” Greenberg believes that the recognizing of difference will serve to defuse its power to exclude.

I soon realized that what had led to my initial discomfort was, in a word, my impatience. Specifically, it was my liberal-humanist impatience with the slow pace of change in many traditional communities, including my own. My instinct is to wave the inclusiveness flag and declare victory for liberal Judaism.

But hearing Rabbi Greenberg playing with the space between sameness and difference
reminded me that the process is not so simple. As Leonard Cohen once said, in recounting his relationship with his Za-Zen master: “He cared who I was. And he didn’t care who I was.” Cohen’s words convey a lot of truth. We all crave recognition of our distinctiveness just as we desire to be accepted for our common humanity.

There has been a similar debate in the United States over the issue of race. So-called “color-blind” policies have come under fire for ignoring the structural inequalities that help determine relative rates of success.

Like many of my contemporaries, I grew up glued to the The Cosby Show, the 1980s sitcom portrayal of uncomplicated African-American upper-middle class life. Sharply departing from the caricaturing tone of shows like Sanford & Son and Good Times, The Cosby Show was nevertheless criticized for its silence on racism. In the eyes of these critics, The Cosby Show focused on sameness at the expense of difference.

At the other end of the spectrum is Gay Pride. As anyone who has been to a Pride parade knows (the last one I attended was the Pride beach party in Tel Aviv in June), parade-goers aren’t generally dressed in Dockers and denim.

Pride is anything but every day. It is colorful, glitzy, and fabulous. As a counterweight to the violent legacy of forced closeting, today’s GLBT culture is all about distinctive recognition.

This strategy may derive from the observation that, as Jay Michaelson wrote recently, “African Americans have long had their humanity denied—but they are still seen, and recognized. Women’s rights and freedoms are again under attack…but no one doubts that women exist. Yet when it comes to LGBT people, our very existence is still, somehow, subject to debate.”

But ultimately it need not be either/or. We need both types of representations. Representations of sameness help prompt empathy. But depictions of difference may help us come to terms with our phobias and prejudices so that empathy can actually take root.

It helps, of course, that it is Rabbi Steven Greenberg who is delivering the message of Otherness. When a gay, Orthodox rabbi addresses a synagogue community and talks about gays and lesbians in terms of “difference,” he is, for some, pointing out the elephant in the room. The audience can exhale, and do the emotional work necessary to adopt a more inclusive and embracing stance.

With Jewish community leaders worrying about Jewish continuity, our institutional tents need to stand wide and open for all to enter. But effective inclusion may require a delicate balancing act of sameness and difference. For liberal agents of change who feel impatient (as I often do), this may appear to be a paradox. To advance meaningful discussions within our communities on the issue of inclusion, we may first need to grapple with the perceptions of Otherness that many of us harbor, whether or not we are prepared to admit it.

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