Gay Bullying, Suicide and the Orthodox Community

An interesting article I received via email:

Bullying and gay teen suicide — and those who stand idly by

by Steven Greenberg.

This past spring, my partner and I moved to Cincinnati. Soon after we arrived, an Orthodox synagogue in town prohibited our attendance. The rabbi of the shul called apologetically to inform us that the ruling had come from a rabbi whose authority exceeded his own.

I decided to call this rabbi, who is the head of a prominent yeshiva and a respected halachic authority. I wanted to meet him personally to discuss the decision with him. He agreed to speak with me on the phone.

He said that he had heard that I advocated changing the Torah. I told him that this is not true, that in fact I am trying to find a way for people who are gay or lesbian to still be a part of Orthodox communities. I shared with him that people who are gay and lesbian who want to remain true to the Torah are in a great deal of pain. Many have just left the community. Some young gay people become so desperate they attempt suicide.

His reply: “Maybe it’s a mitzvah for them to do so.”

At first I was speechless. I asked for clarification, and yes, this is exactly what he meant. Since gay people are guilty of capital crimes, perhaps it might be a good idea for them to do the job themselves. For the rest of the conversation I was shaking, using every ounce of my strength to end the conversation without losing my composure.

His uncensored expression, one he might wish he hadn’t said, was surely beyond the pale in every in every way, even for the strictest of Orthodox rabbis. But, in retrospect, I am grateful to him for this transparent, if painful, honesty.

Whether it is said so baldly or not, for many in the Orthodox community it would be better for us to disappear, one way or another. When teenagers come to understand how intense the communal desire for their erasure is, how brutal it can be, they can easily give in to despair as a number of them did just last month.

I have hesitated to share this story for many reasons. I am a committed religious Jew and am indeed embarrassed to share negative portrayals of my own community. My instinct is to follow Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook’s adage: Avoid complaining about what other people do wrong and simply add goodness. But silence at this point is unacceptable. I can no longer stand passively by as the blood of my brothers and sisters is spilled.

To my colleagues, I say this: It is not possible to abstain from choosing. Either stand with the more than 170Orthodox rabbis who have openly and proudly condemned homophobia and bigotry, while at the same time maintaining a traditionalist reading of the halacha regarding homosexuality, or stand with the rosh yeshiva who told me that teenage suicide is a mitzvah. Either we give a teen hope that a good life as a gay person is possible, in whatever religious community he or she lives, or we confirm his or her worst nightmares — and ours.

Now, it is fair to worry, as many Orthodox leaders do, that taking a stand against homophobia might be interpreted as approving of all homosexual behavior. It surely need not be, but more importantly, is the fear of misinterpretation worth risking the very lives of our kids?

Nor is it enough simply to decry bullying. Religious communities of all sorts need to make it possible for a 13-year-old to expect that life will be good. We have a duty to make it clear that if a teenager discovers herself to be gay, she can still dream of a happy future. Depriving young people of hope for the future is a deadly game.

Last month, more than 500 mourners attended a memorial for Seth Walsh, a 13-year-old from Tehachapi (near Bakersfield) who hung himself from a tree in his backyard Sept. 19. One classmate and friend, Jamie Elaine Phillips, told reporters that Seth had known he was gay and had been teased about it for years. “This year it got much worse,” she said. “People would say, ‘You should go kill yourself. You should go away. You’re gay, who cares about you?’ ”

There are at least three steps that my colleagues in the Orthodox rabbinate, and leaders of Orthodox organizations, can and should take at this time.

First, if they have not already done so, they should sign the Statement of Principles (http://www.bit.ly/cbthuc). Even those who think the document is too conservative ought to consider signing as a powerful rejoinder to the rash of recent gay teen suicides — at least seven young men in seven different states. As the statement itself says, “Embarrassing, harassing or demeaning someone with a homosexual orientation or same-sex attraction is a violation of Torah prohibitions that embody the deepest values of Judaism.” There is no better time to reaffirm this than now.

Second, I have been deeply disappointed to see so few Orthodox institutions represented on a recent letter, spearheaded by the LGBT advocacy group Keshet, condemning bullying and homophobia in the Jewish community. Signing this letter should be a no-brainer (http://www.bit.ly/ceUH4y). The letter says nothing about the contentious issues of same-sex marriage or homosexuality in Jewish law. It says that bullying is unacceptable. It is especially disappointing for Orthodox schools to quietly abstain from signing on.

Third, Orthodox institutions must immediately cut off any support or endorsement of so-called “reparative therapy,” which has been denounced by every professional medical and psychiatric association, and that has never worked for more than a sliver of “patients.” So long as we perpetuate the myth that homosexuality is a pathology to be cured, we encourage kids who find they cannot cure themselves to despair, and consider ending their lives.

According to a 2007 study, one in six LGBT teenagers considers suicide, and one in 20 actually attempts it. This is not a marginal problem affecting just a few depressed kids; it is an epidemic, spread by hatred and its most valuable ally, silence. Whatever our opinions are regarding two verses in Leviticus, there is another that cannot be forgotten: Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.

Rabbi Steven Greenberg is a senior teaching fellow at the New York–based Clal — the National Center for Jewish Learning and Leadership, and the director of Orthodox programming at Nehirim. He is the author of “Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition.”


FYI

My new, watered-down-for-employers blog, is here.

As I wait in my Dad’s office at work, trying to keep myself busy by sorting the large stack of dollar bills on his desk by random things like, year printed, serial number, treasurer name, etc. I notice something, Most of the treasurer’s signatures are from women, or at least people who have names traditionally assigned to females. And out of these signatures most of them from women who have Latino names. So I did some “research” (aka googling and then reading a wikipedia article on the matter).

Since 1953 until present day there have been only female appointed treasurers. Of those fifteen treasurers, seven are women of color. Of those seven, six are Latinas. And only one of those six has been arrested (the one who worked under G. W. Bush).

I have also learned I am easily entertained. Here are some random pictures for this random article.

If that didn’t fulfill your craving for 90’s JT nostalgia, there’s more where that came from.

Fin

Longtime readers deserve better than this sendoff; but due to the constraints which have stymied down this blog’s publication rate to a trickle necessitate brevity here as well. The Word Warrior will not be continuing as a sustained effort in media, social, and intellectual commentary. I may occasionally be posting stories to the site because I foresee their being useful to a broader outside project—but they will not be attended by my commentary, and will likely be few and far between.

It pains me to end the project; I met some remarkable Marquette people through it. But now that I am gone from school and refocusing my energies on finding employment, there are other projects demanding my attention and energies.

Thank you all again, and may you rise to all occasions.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali on Australia’s Dateline

Dems reach deal to repeal DADT

Can they not screw it up? Via TPM:

In a major breakthrough just in time to energize the Democratic voter base for the fall, the White House has given its blessing to a compromise repealing the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” ban on gays serving openly in the military. The measure, which could face a vote this week, would allow the Pentagon to move forward with its review of the best way to end the Clinton-era policy.

The change would come in the form of an amendment to the defense spending measure, a process which the White House’s Office of Management and Budget said late last night it will support. The Pentagon also backs using this method while it completes the review, OMB Director Peter Orszag said in a letter to Sen. Joe Lieberman, who is working on the issue on the Senate side. Orszag said the amendment would allow for “comprehensive review, enable the Department of Defense to assess the results of the review, and ensure that the implementation of the repeal is consistent with standards of military readiness, effectiveness, unit cohesion, recruiting and retention.” Democrats on the Hill accepted the compromise last night.

The new agreement comes following a private White House meeting for gay rights groups and after months of protests that included Lt. Dan Choi chaining himself to the gates at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to draw attention to the sluggish pace of President Obama’s promise to repeal the policy. Sen. Carl Levin told TPMDC yesterday that the White House came around “in the last few days.”

The Associated Press reports that Rep. Patrick Murphy, an Iraq war veteran, is expected to introduce the legislative proposal Tuesday, with a vote possible as early as Thursday. Republicans say they’ll fight the proposal. Murphy (D-PA) on Monday sent the White House a letter from military leaders citing a Gallup poll from earlier this month showing 70 percent of Americans favor overturning the ban.

Italian sex abuse victims petition for bishops’ removal

Via AP:

Victims of a Florence priest who was defrocked for sexually and psychologically abusing his young parishioners are now demanding that his bishops be held responsible for keeping his crimes quiet.  The victims’ appeal is the latest sign that clerical abuse in Italy, long so taboo that it was rarely spoken of much less acted on, is increasingly getting public attention and forcing the Vatican to confront the problem in its own backyard. In a letter to the pope obtained Wednesday, 17 victims of Lelio Cantini said that his bishops — one in particular — should be forced from office for having allegedly tried to keep his crimes quiet. They noted that bishops have resigned in countries like Ireland for similar inaction, but not in Italy.

(above) Lelio Cantini

“We ask for definitive clarification from all those responsible for our case, and that those who are to blame be definitively recognized as guilty and isolated and that justice — the daughter of truth — takes its course,” they wrote in the letter.

The case of the 87-year-old Don Cantini is one of the most explosive to have rocked the Italian Catholic Church. Victims who had stayed quiet for some 30 years emerged in 2004 to accuse him of creating a sect-like atmosphere in his Queen of Peace parish on the outskirts of Florence, where he allegedly subjected youngsters to sexual and psychological abuse.

(above) Cardinal Ennio Antonelli

Initially, Florence’s then-archbishop, Cardinal Ennio Antonelli, moved Cantini to another parish for “health” reasons. But three years after the victims first went to the auxiliary bishop with complaints, Antonelli announced in 2007 that Cantini had been found guilty in a canonical trial of “sexual abuse against some girls from 1973-1987, false mysticism and control and domination of consciences,” according to a diocesan statement. No criminal charges were brought because the statute of limitations had expired. As his punishment, Cantini was forbidden from celebrating Mass in public and hearing confessions for five years, and was forced to recite a lengthy psalm every day and make a charitable offering, according to Antonelli’s statement. Amid outrage over the perceived levity of the punishment, the pope laicized Cantini a year later.

(above) Archbishop Giusseppe Betori

The case made headlines in Italy in 2007, when Cantini’s victims appeared on state-run RAI television to denounce the priest and detail the abuse they suffered at his hands. While the victims are pleased that Cantini has been defrocked, they now want others responsible for allegedly covering up his crimes to pay. In particular, they have accused the diocese’ vicar general, Monsignor Claudio Maniago, of having tried to keep their claims quiet. They say the current Florence archbishop, Monsignor Giuseppe Betori, had never sought them out.

“Since 2004, when a few of us painfully found the courage to accuse him (Cantini), our church has tried to silence us through intimidation and threats, through a constant effort of delegitimization and reassurances, inviting us to keep quiet and worse, asking us to forget a painful past and instead go forward in faith,” the victims wrote in the letter. “Never in these two years has (Betori) felt the need to meet us, to know our faces and our stories, to listen to us and welcome our thirst for justice.”

In response, the diocese spokesman issued a statement to the ANSA news agency saying none of the victims had ever sought a meeting with Betori and that all they had to do was make an appointment with his secretary. “The bishop is ready to meet with them to join them in prayer,” said the statement, which the spokesman Enrico Viviano confirmed Wednesday. “All the rest only brings about distortions for other ends of a painful episode for them as well as the Florentine church.”

To date, no Italian bishop is known to have resigned for having shielded a pedophile priest, but pressure is growing for accountability.

In Verona, the bishop has been told by the Vatican to conduct a more thorough investigation into allegations that priests raped and molested dozens of deaf boys at a church-run institute. And later this month, a Rome bishop is expected to take the stand in a criminal trial of one of his priests accused of molesting seven young boys. The bishop admitted in a prosecutors’ interrogation that he knew of rumors of abuse against the priest two years before he was arrested but didn’t report it to authorities.