Sunday, October 12, 2014

Is Divorce the Only Option?

Rabbi Gil Steinlauf and his wife Rabbi Batya Steinlauf (Times of Israel)
There has been a lot written about a letter made public by Conservative Rabbi Gil Steinlauf. Most of it has been very supportive of his decision to divorce his wife of 20 years.

In a heartbreaking letter, Rabbi Steinlauf describes his life-long struggles over his sexuality. At the same time he tells us of his beautiful marriage to Batya, a loving and supportive wife - and of the upheaval this decision will have on their lives and those of their three children.

Columnist Jeffery Goldberg, who is a member of Rabbi Steinlauf’s synagogue, wrote a poignant article about his decision which in part said the following: 
There is sadness here, of course, because Gil and Batya have had, in many ways, a good, even model, marriage (their three children are testament to this), but there is also relief, and anxiety, and most of all a leap into the unknown. I am posting his letter in full below (with his permission) because it is beautiful and thoughtful and heartbreaking and deeply religious… (Rabbi Steinlauf’s letter can be read there is full.) 
I too have a sadness here. Why after a 20 year model marriage could he not keep his family intact? Why the need to divorce? He clearly loves his wife and children. And they love him. His wife, Batya was supportive and understood his struggles. Why leave now? What is gained? 

Personal freedom?! What does that even mean in this context? Freedom from the responsibilities of marriage? …a marriage that he was faithful to for 20 years? Is his personal freedom worth the price of destroying their marriage? ...and the price of the difficult road his children will now have to travel without him there as he was before?

Rabbi Avi Shafran expresses his views rather succinctly in a Forward article  - and I pretty much agree with him: 
I cannot judge him; I cannot presume to appreciate another human being’s challenge (and have failed enough, if different ones, of my own). But pain, in the end, is part of life, and each of us is challenged by any of a variety of temptations to pursue paths we know, or are taught by the Torah, we shouldn’t follow… 
The Orthodox world still hews to that foundational concept, given voice in our ancestors’ declaration at Sinai “We will do and we will hear” (Na’aseh V’Nishmah) — which the Talmud understands as accepting the Torah’s laws even in the absence of our own understanding or our abilities to personally relate to them. 
Just to be clear (and as many people who read this blog with any frequency already know) I do not believe in condemning same sex attractions. The Torah does not condemn them either. It is only acting upon them in specific ways in which the Torah condemns them. Furthermore - what people do in the privacy of their own homes is for God to judge, not for me to speculate about.

Nor do I believe that changing one’s sexual orientation is in any way a practical solution – if it is even possible. Which I tend to doubt (except in cases where people aren’t sure about their sexual identity or are bi-sexual). I do not expect Rabbi Steinlauf to change. And I applaud him for his honesty and integrity in coming out as gay. As he correctly points out - the Talmud in Yuma 72a states: 
 “Rabbah said, any scholar whose inside does not match his outside (Tocho K’Baro) is no scholar. Abaye, and some say Ravah bar Ulah, said [one whose inside does not match his outside] is called an abomination.” 
No one should have to live a lie. Least of all someone who is looked at as a role model by his congregation and honored for his integrity and leadership.  But integrity on this issue does not require him to get divorced.

That said I would never recommend that a gay man marry a woman in denial of his sexuality or even worse – hiding that fact from her prior to marriage. I would strongly recommend against it and even condemn it. There are however some rare exceptions where it can and does work. Rabbi Steinlauf is one such exception. But he is not the only one.

A few years ago when discussing this subject here in another context, an Orthodox gay man commented about his own experience. He too was married with children. He described the relationship with his wife in superlative terms. She too knew of his sexual orientation and gave him unconditional love and support. And like Rabbi Steinlauf he too described the struggles he had to live with every day of his life. He even consulted with his rabbi how to deal with his struggles while staying married to his wife.  But unlike Rabbi Steinlauf, he did not get divorced. Because to him the relationship he had with his wife, whom he loved dearly was too valuable to give up.

At the end of the day, no two situations are alike. I therefore admit that I have no right to judge Rabbi Steinlauf’s decision. I do not wear his shoes. But at the same time, I can’t help but believe that a marriage like his is worth saving. Is it not possible to ‘come out of the closet’ and at the same time stay married?