It Gets Better, But Sometimes It Gets Worse Before It Gets Better

I remember having a conversation once with a colleague at work, about the endless conflict in the Middle East. At one point he said, “don’t you think things would be a whole lot easier if Israel just didn’t exist?”

I wasn’t entirely sure how to answer that. On one level the answer is, of course, “yes.” Things would be a whole lot easier for a whole lot of people if Israel didn’t exist. Israel is an exceptionally inconvenient country.

On the other hand, this isn’t generally considered an acceptable way to talk. If you said to your wife, “things would be a whole lot easier if your mother didn’t exist,” well, that might be true on some level. But you should still expect to get slapped for saying it.

So the answer I gave him was, basically, “yes, I suppose there are all sorts of people all over the world of whom one might say: it would be more convenient if they didn’t exist.”

This is really Andrew Sullivan’s beat rather than mine (and while I don’t think he’s already written about this story, it’s hard to keep up with Andrew, so I may well be wrong), but the following piece from the Jewish Week, by Rabbi Steven Greenberg, made me think of that work conversation:

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.

Rabbi Greenberg goes on to make the case that, in terms of Jewish law as well as basic ethics, it’s more important to save the life of a suicidal gay teen even if it means seeming to suggest that homosexual behavior is not a grave transgression, and therefore it is incumbent on Orthodox Jewish rabbis and institutions to publicly condemn bullying and humiliation of gay people, particularly gay youth. Rabbi Greenberg himself is fighting for considerably more recognition than this minimal level; he does want to argue that traditional understandings of the biblical prohibitions are incorrect, and that there is a way for a person to live a healthy and full gay life as well as a healthy and full religiously-observant one. But at a minimum, he wants that recognition of a right to exist.

He’s not going to get it.

It gets worse before it gets better – indeed, it gets worse even as it’s getting better. That’s the way the politics of these sorts of issues goes, issues that appear to present very fundamental challenges to an entire worldview. At the outset, the worldview has a variety of sources of support: longstanding traditions and patterns of behavior; a larger societal consensus on the rightness of a position; the support of scientific authorities; etc. But as these supports fall away, as patterns of behavior change, as the question becomes contested rather than settled, as the scientific consensus dissolves or even switches to the other side, the defender of the traditional understanding is left with only one actual argument: if I give this up, I will have surrendered everything. And so I will never give up.

This isn’t even a specifically religious phenomenon, something I think Andrew is reluctant to recognize. The pieds noirs grew more radical even as their political position grew untenable as they were abandoned by Paris. Ditto for Rhodesia. Ditto for defenses of segregation in the American South. The challenge of homosexuality is distinct in that gay people appear everywhere, in all kinds of families – the solution of separatism is not a viable one. But otherwise, it’s a pretty familiar dynamic. And we’ve probably got a decent idea of how that dynamic will play out:

It’ll get worse before it gets better. Indeed, it’ll get worse even as it gets better, even because it gets better.