From the Outside to the Inside in Judaism and Christianity

Via David Mills, here’s something many of you may find provocative:

A respected Conservative clergyman, Gil Steinlauf, senior rabbi of Washington’s Adas Israel Congregation wrote his congregants a moving letter shortly after Yom Kippur. In it, he announced that he and his wife of 20 years, Batya, would be divorcing. That alone would have been surprise enough for his congregation, considering the model marriage, complete with three children, that he and his wife (also a Conservative rabbi and the head of an office of the local Jewish Community Relations Council) had forged. The Steinlaufs’ union had earned the respect and admiration of Adas Israel’s members.

What compounded the jolt, though, was the revelation of what had brought about the decision to divorce. In the husband’s words: “I have come to understand that I am gay.”

Even as an Orthodox rabbi and someone who considers living a homosexual life to be a sin, I could not help but feel anguished by the couple’s “heartbreaking decision,” in Rabbi Steinlauf’s words. He went on to characterize his marriage as one in which he and Batya, a wonderful woman… shared a love so deep and real,” in which, together, they “built a loving home with our children founded principally on the values and joys of Jewish life and tradition.”

Reading those words, I hurt for the husband, I hurt for the wife and I hurt for the children.

That’s Avi Shafran, writing at The Jewish Daily Forward last week. He continues:

But I also came to better grasp, and to bemoan, the yawning gulf between the Orthodox understanding of life — which I would argue is the historically Jewish one — and the contemporary take on what it means to have been entrusted with existence.

That chasm became apparent from another sentence in the rabbi’s letter. “The truth is,” he wrote, “that like anyone else, I have no choice but to live with the reality, or personal Torah, of my life.”

“Personal Torah.” What a jarring phrase, at least to ears like mine. Judaism for millennia has been predicated on the concept of Jews bending their personal wills to the will of God, of defying “realities,” not succumbing to them. The Orthodox world still hews to that foundational concept, given voice in our ancestors’ declaration at Sinai “We will do and we will hear” — 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. In truth, most Jews, on one level or another, live that ideal. That is why they still circumcise their sons.

I don’t doubt for a moment that Rabbi Steinlauf has indeed faced a difficult struggle with same-sex attraction for many years. That says nothing bad about him, and his orientation is not his fault. But it is his challenge. And the Jewish response to challenge is to meet it. In the spirit of the Torah, the original one, not the “personal” one we might choose to write for ourselves.

And he, in fact, did that, by marrying, fathering children and being a loving husband and dad. No small accomplishment, especially facing what he did, and experiencing the pain he must have felt in denying a powerful predisposition. 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. What’s more, alleviating personal pain can cause others even greater pain. Sometimes, it must be acknowledged, the right path is the painful one.

And then comes a pretty profound meditation on a disputed Talmudic text:

Rabbi Steinlauf references a Talmudic text he finds pertinent to his predicament. It is indeed a poignant one and one that I have, as he has, ruminated over for years, in Yoma 72b.

“Rabbah said: Any scholar whose inside does not match his outside is no scholar…” And Rabbi Steinlauf explains that “Ultimately, the dissonance between my inside and my outside became undeniable, then unwise, and finally intolerable.”

What is particularly noteworthy in that text, though, is its precise wording, something that my revered teacher Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg once pointed out to me. Rabbah does not say, my rebbe noted, that a scholar’s “outside” should match his “inside” — that we should necessarily live lives that reflect our inner “identities” — but rather the opposite.

A Jew, in other words, is to create an “outside” — a lived life —that is consonant with the Torah’s laws; and then to work, perhaps over an entire lifetime, to bring his “inside” into synchrony with that outward, Torah-centered life.

Rabbi Steinlauf, in fact, seems to have achieved that with regard to his orientation for 20 years of meaningful, productive, loving marriage. That he seems to be giving up on his challenge at this point is, to me, a tragedy, for his wife, for his family and, ultimately, for himself. I know that in these personal autonomy-addled times I’ll be called a heretic for saying so, but I pray that Rabbi Steinlauf will reconsider his plan, and serve as a true and powerful example to other Jews facing their own challenges, that is to say, us all.

In Christian terms, Shafran’s point about conforming our “inside” to our “outside” is perhaps best thought about in the context of Christian liturgy and the historic devotions that have been entrusted to us from previous generations of believers. We may not always feel or believe the Lord’s Prayer when we say it on Sundays. Nor may we always be dazzled by the Eucharist and uplifted by the hymns and Scripture readings that we commit ourselves to, week after week—or even “strap ourselves to,” as my friend Kathryn Greene-McCreight has described her experience of praying the Psalms in the midst of severe depression. Nor—especially for those of us who are gay—may we always understand or appreciate the rationale for the Scriptural, traditional prohibition of gay sex.

But if we keep showing up and keep embracing the faith we’ve been given—like Flannery O’Connor showing up at her desk every morning, regardless of whether she felt particularly inspired to write or not—then we may learn that more important than being true to some sense of our inner selves is being true to the faith to which we were committed in our baptism. As the late Father Richard John Neuhaus once put it, “In the Christian tradition, being true to yourself means being true to the self that you are called to be.”

9 thoughts on “From the Outside to the Inside in Judaism and Christianity

  1. The last two paragraphs frustrated me sufficiently to comment. The liturgy and historical devotions are fine (helpful and necessary) but the reality of our “outside” is the Word of God. We follow it as Truth. If that truth is malleable sufficient to conform to our “inside” then is it still truth? I don’t agree liturgy and devotions are truth in the same measure.

    • I agree with you (I think!). Scripture is the final arbiter of all truth, I say as a pretty committed reformational Anglican. But the liturgy, etc., of the church is way of keeping Scripture and its implications before us at all times. I wasn’t trying to set up an either/or, nor was I trying to minimize the final authority of Scripture.

  2. I think one error in thinking that is often made is to assume that the liturgy is a man made construct that expresses our feelings or thoughts about God. In fact, the historic liturgy is composed predominantly of direct quotes from Scripture. And the portions that are not direct quotes are very close paraphrases.

    Even the prayers, such as the collects, are more closely tied to Scripture than to one’s expression of one’s own devotional thoughts or feelings.

    The Church’s contribution to the liturgy consisted mostly of picking those scriptures to quote every week that seemed to be the most important for the Christian to have in the forefront of his or her mind from day to day.

    The liturgy and sacraments, therefore, are the primary way in which Scripture does conform us to its truth by weekly repetition of that Scripture, especially as we do so as community.

    (I am speaking of the historic liturgy, of course, not the innovations that have been introduced in the last few decades)

    • I would add that the Church began to celebrate the liturgy as soon as it was formed. The first of Paul’s letters were not written for at least a couple of decades, and other parts of the New Testament were written even later (exact dates are controversial). Some parts of Scripture likely are taken from the liturgy (e.g. Philippians 2:6-11). The canon of the New Testament was not fully established until the 4th century.

      In some cases, early Christian liturgies give us better evidence of the beliefs of the early church than the New Testament. Reading the New Testament without understanding the liturgical context that produced it can lead to misunderstanding and misleading interpretations.

  3. Your excellent posting was thought provoking. I think the concluding paragraphs would have better reflected the posted if the focus was on the context of choices made to conform to truth (Christianity or Judaism) or not. The rabbi (Steinlauf) had been living the liturgy and devotions – his painful choice was his inner torah. The choices we all make are often painful. God grant us the strength, peace, comfort and trust to make them in conformity with “Outside” truth.

  4. The post give us good points to reflect on.

    As for the liturgy, as last Sunday’s readings tell us, it’s the Supper of the Lamb, in its earthly aspect. Blessed are those who are called.

  5. Waxing poetic about the life others have to live?
    If it wasn’t hard enough, now the Rabbi has to exist as someone’s “exhibit A”?

  6. The author of the linked article glosses over the feelings of the wife. Ultimately, this is a question for both. Mixed orientation marriage for the bisexual maybe possible but for one or more homosexuals the marriage is little more than a selfish farce: an engine of procreation without the unitive aspects of the relationship that form the foundation. Entering into such a lie endangers the welfare of children by raising them in a house built on sand. Thankfully, in this case, it took 20 years for the house to crumble. Many kids are less fortunate and the house tumbles when they still dwell within.

    Beyond personal pet peeve, good article. People overestimate the power of the outside to change the inside, though. It can but only with trust. Expecting such trust to be freely given is unreasonable these days.

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