Monday, November 22, 2021

Yes, We Can Walk and Chew Gum

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky (YUTorah)
Is it possible to be compassionate while at the same time staying loyal to our religious beliefs?  For Orthodox Jews the answer might seem obvious. Compassion is our ‘middle name’. It is a character trait we inherited from our Patriarch Abraham, whose life exemplified compassion. How can such a question even be asked?

Well that is the question asked rhetorically by Rabbi Steven Pruzansky. He asks it in the context of the values of contemporary society that treats serious sins in the Torah like virtues: Sexuality as currently defined should be value free. The way an individual expresses their sexuality is – not only nobody’s business - but to be celebrated. Especially if it is outside of traditional norms. Those that try and express biblical values on this subject are seen as bigots and anything but compassionate. 

Rabbi Pruzansky suggests that because of this new ‘political correctness’ we have ‘fallen off the wagon’ of promoting the values of the Torah.  Here is how he puts it: 

(The reluctance) to speak the hard truth without sounding insensitive…has caused many rabbis to color the truth, avoid certain topics altogether or, worst of all, try to revise the Torah, subtly or overtly. Thus, many embrace the new immorality “as the world we live in” without recognizing that their acquiescence is shaping and validating that “world.” And the effect on the laity, which is both a prime mover of these deviations as well as pressure points on the rabbinate, is devastating in terms of their fidelity to the Mesorah. Lacking forceful, unapologetic Torah guidance, their moral authorities have become Twitter or Facebook, the society at large, its loudest progressive voices, the secular culture and other anti-Torah outlets.  

Rabbi Pruzansky insists that we need to be clear about what is and is not permitted despite the cultural climate in which we live. Sins must unapologetically be labeled sins. Lest we mislead our own laity that we somehow condone it. While he agrees that we should have compassion, he rejects the broad acceptance of gay lifestyles implied by our reticence to speak the truth about serious nature of these Torah violations 

While he’s at it he rejects the current societal embrace of gender identity rather than biological identity. Although there too he says we need to have compassion, society has gone too far in that direction – creating a climate where questioning one’s gender at birth is seen as normal. That - he says - encourages some  young people to physically change their sex only to regret it later. His point being that people born male are male and always will be male regardless of how they see themselves. Same thing females. And that this truth needs to be asserted without the mistaken hesitation they feel because of changing societal attitudes. 

Here is the problem I have with this. Even though I agree with him on asserting Halacha clearly and unambiguously, I find his nod to compassion to be just that. A nod. Not real compassion. 

Telling someone with gender dysphoria that they are the gender they were born with - regardless of how they feel is anything but compassionate. Even if it’s true. To someone with gender dysphoria, their gender identity is real.  And to someone that is gay, they cannot help being attracted to the same sex. 

I agree that in a world where sinfulness is celebrated that we ought to be clear about our views. Sin should not be celebrated! But focusing only on that is anything but compassionate. We may as well be telling them they are going to burn in Hell for how they live. That is not compassion. That is cruelty. 

With truth must come compassion. Which means accepting them for who they are. Not for what they do. They need to be accepted as human beings. Not as pariahs. It is possible to be clear about Halacha and be compassionate at the same time. This is how Rabbi Efrem Goldberg approached it. It is the right approach and one that I much prefer.

This is why I always say hate the sin but love the sinner. Accept them for who they are while clearly rejecting any violation of Halacha that may result form that. Even if we assume they are violating Halacha, we need not focus on that anymore than we would focus on someone else’s violation of another Halacha. We need to accept every Jew for what he is. And not assume anything about what  he does.

Rabbi Pruzansky is well intentioned. I agree with him that societal celebration of sinful behavior needs to be firmly rejected. But compassion  must not be sacrificed or even minimized in its wake.  

The only exception to that is when violations of Halacha are promoted as positive values. If and when that happens it has to be publicly rejected in the strongest possible terms.