Schechter Letter

Schechter Letter

Rabbi Benay Lappe

June 14, 2002

Rabbi Jerry Teller
Solomon Schechter Day Schools
Maxine Cohen Memorial Circle
3210 Dundee Road
Northbrook, IL 60062

Dear Rabbi Teller:

It is with a heavy heart that I write this letter, yet I would be remiss in my responsibilities as a rabbi and as a Jew if I did not attempt to offer, from a place of love and compassion, the following tochecha regarding what I am certain is a sincere and well-meaning but misguided stance on your part based on unfounded fear and misinformation. I do so not on behalf of myself, but rather on behalf of the students whose futures lie in your hands.

You claim that my presence on the Schechter faculty presents “an issue of role modeling.” Either your concern is that a) my heterosexual students will be influenced to become gay, b) my gay students will be influenced to remain gay, or c) all of my students may be influenced to see that gay and lesbian people can have healthy, happy, respectable—and Jewish—lives.

No one, no matter how much we admire or love them, can change our sexuality. No teacher, parent, doctor or therapist has ever made another human being either gay or straight. That’s up to God. I urge you to confirm this with mental health experts. The students in your middle school are already either gay or straight. There’s nothing I can do to change any student’s sexuality—and nothing they can do about it either, except come to be aware of it and embrace it.

For those students who are gay or lesbian—and statistically 10% of your students are, whether they are fully aware of it yet or not—you have only one job: to help them see that, in spite of the senseless hatred and bigotry they will confront from the world around them, that their Jewish tradition teaches them that they, too, are created in the image of God, and that they are in no way less valuable or valued than their heterosexual peers. Your job is to show them that, in spite of what others around them may say, they can be both gay/lesbian and Jewish.

If you do not, Rabbi Teller, believe me when I tell you that when they do come to full awareness of their sexuality, they will either reject Judaism or will reject themselves—because you are teaching them, even if by only your silence, that they cannot be both. In the former case, they will be deprived of their heritage, live spiritual lives divorced from their natural patrimony, and the Jewish community will be deprived of their gifts. And in the latter case, they will live lives doomed to unhappiness and a lack of emotional and spiritual fulfillment—at best.

You are their rabbi. It is your job to teach these young people that, no matter what their sexuality, their tradition embraces them completely. If you do not, they will struggle alone to reconcile the two truths of their lives which they will believe the world around them to be telling them are incompatible. Is it any wonder that gay and lesbian teens are two- to three-times more likely to commit suicide than their straight peers? That 30% of gay and lesbian adolescents make suicide attempts at least once? That gay and lesbian youth represent 30% of all completed teen suicides? Not only their Jewish identity but their very lives are in your hands, Rabbi Teller. You have only one choice: to help them love themselves, or to help them hate themselves.

How you interpret Leviticus is an issue of nothing less than pikuach nefesh. And you know as well as I do that when our moral and ethical sensitivities have grown closer to a truer understanding of God’s will—be it on issues relating to women, the deaf, the stubborn and rebellious son, lex talionis, mamzerut, even financial issues—our tradition fully empowers us to reinterpret or even uproot the Torah for what our svara tells us is the right thing to do.

The only difference between the issue of homosexuality and these other issues is that you and I are living smack in the middle of the shift—a shift no different than that from ayin tachat ayin to mammon. And the question is: which side will we be on? Will we be on the side of those who say: “God could not possibly have meant this the way it appears—it’s just too cruel” as did our courageous ancestors, the Rabbis? Or will we be on the side of those who point their finger at a verse in the Torah and say: “It says so right here, in black and white and that’s that!” regardless of what injustice and suffering that may perpetuate?

And will we pass on to the next generation a Judaism that our children will reject because their consciences will not allow them to accept a tradition so antithetical to what they know, in their God-given kishkes, is right? And if you are unconcerned with the 10% who are gay, don’t think that this conflict is immaterial to the 90% either, for every one of your heterosexual students has either a gay or lesbian parent, sibling, relative, friend, or teacher (if they’re lucky!), and will eventually come to trust more in what their hearts tell them about these beloved gay and lesbian people than what you interpret Leviticus to say about them.

It is every school’s mandate not only to teach, but to guide the development of healthy children—healthy emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually. I ask you to consider more seriously the emotional needs of all your students—both the heterosexual students as well as the gay and lesbian students.

I am certain that you take pains to be sensitive to the gender differences among your students and to present positive Jewish role models for both your girls as well as your boys. You would probably think about recruiting female teachers if you found that your faculty consisted only of male teachers, in order to show your female students that they, too, could grow up to become learned and respected Jews. One day educators will realize that it is just as important to ensure that their faculties consist of both gay and heterosexual teachers as male and female teachers.

Rabbi Teller, the hiring of a gay or lesbian teacher is not a halachic issue, and we both know that. Any Schechter school is perfectly within its rights to hire an openly gay or lesbian teacher. As you well know the Law Committee of the Conservative movement has expressed a range of opinion on the issue of homosexuality, and has expressly given the individual institutions affiliated with the movement—schools, camps, synagogues, etc.—the autonomy to decide their own policy on the issue of the hiring of openly gay or lesbian faculty, clergy, and staff. We are a movement which allows for a range of opinion on many issues, including halachic issues. I urge you to consider creating a school community in which not all rabbis or teachers may agree with you, but may embody a fuller representation of our movement’s range of options. I do not ask you to agree with my understanding of Leviticus, or of human nature. But I ask you to give your students the opportunity to learn another Conservative opinion on the matter.

As rabbis, it is our job to teach and to lead. It is not our job to succumb to baseless prejudice and small-mindedness. On the contrary, it is our job to challenge our constituents to a greater understanding of God, of one another, and of themselves. And it is our job to be challenged by one another, and to strive ourselves for greater understandings of God’s will.

In our professional careers, we are given few chances to do something truly momentous. We are given few chances to make a historic difference. We are given few chances to literally change the world. We are given few chances to literally save the lives of our students. You will not be universally popular if you decide to retract your objection to the hiring of a gay or lesbian teacher. It will not be easy for you to withstand the criticism of some of your ba’alei batim. But you will have few opportunities in your career to ever do something this important again.

I am enclosing with this letter a stack of semester- and year-end evaluations written by my students at the Milken Community Middle and High School, many of whom come from Conservative as well as Orthodox homes (not a single parent from which, I might add, ever expressed the slightest objection to my teaching their children). When you consider denying your Schechter students the opportunity to be my students, I want you to realize exactly what you’re depriving them of. And when you think of your Schechter parents, ask yourself what it is, ultimately, that you think they want from their children’s teachers, and how they want their children to be influenced in the classroom. I think these evaluations speak for themselves.

As you read these pages, Rabbi Teller, I think you will see that it is, in fact, “an issue of role modeling,” but perhaps not the kind you had feared. Thank you for allowing me to offer these words of tochecha. I look forward to the opportunity to discuss theses issues with you further.


Rabbi Benay Lappe