From a Flatbush Boy Whose Teacher Has Told Him Goodbye

By Steven Zeitchik

Published October 07, 2005, issue of October 07, 2005.
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He was a new teacher, not yet 30, and I was a student, barely 17, when we first talked. I never sat in his classroom; we met in the very non-teacherly environment of Model U.N., for which he enthusiastically led our school’s delegation. But from the moment I met him, Rabbi Alan Stadtmauer became one of the most influential figures in my life.

I absorbed his ideas and his seriousness and his way of thinking. In the spiritual muddle that is senior year at a Jewish day school, he was an impossibly patient mentor, the kind of intellectual whose star is only made brighter by his open-mindedness and accessibility. Never didactic and always thoughtful, his was an invigorating personality; it’s the rare high school teacher, or rabbi, who can trade convincingly in Eastern religion, modern music, rabbinic philosophy and global politics, and not as some sort of ploy or pose, either. He believed, with the aggressive sincerity that was his trademark, that all wisdom and art was of a piece — both with being human and, always, with being an observant Jew. And he was willing to take on any shibboleth, rabbinic or otherwise, if it didn’t square with his careful analysis.

Well past graduation, we would still get together and talk, at a cafe or over a Sabbath meal. Even when we lost touch toward the end of my college years, and even after I eventually left behind some modes of ritual, his approach to all kinds of problems — especially the tangled knot of faith and reason — stayed with me.

His professional success filled me with no small amount of pride. Word of his many promotions — in less than a decade he went from unknown instructor to leader of one of the most prestigious American Jewish day schools — offered validation, and hope. If the Jewish educational system could not only produce an Alan Stadtmauer (he was a Ramaz and Yeshiva University graduate) but reward him, then perhaps that system’s future wasn’t so bleak after all.

He unexpectedly departed the principalship of Yeshivah of Flatbush High School in June, and last week it was revealed that he did so not because of a career reevaluation, as some had thought, but because of a decision to leave Orthodoxy and come out as a gay man.

Since the news broke, I have returned many times to conversations we had — looking, I suppose, for clues on what was to come, but also for some kind of disclaimer, something that would explain and even excuse this uncommon evacuation. I found it impossible to avoid feelings of betrayal. Ripped from under me were the assumptions most of us subconsciously hold about our mentors — that they aren’t bothered by the confusion that nags the rest of us; that, having already struggled to resolve life’s key questions, they live in a kind of contented stasis. I needed him to justify this somehow, to tell me, even through these memories, how it all began to change.

Of course mentors are rarely uncomplicated, and discovering their humanity is itself part of the mentoring process. But there was more to jolt me here than a fallen role model. Stadtmauer is one of the most reflective and committed people I have ever met. To learn that he had spent most of his 42 reflective years committed to what he now implicitly acknowledges as folly tore a hole right through me. There is something profoundly depressing about a man so publicly and unambiguously changing his mind, no matter your religious bent. If Alan Stadtmauer can simply renege on his hard-won beliefs, where does that leave the rest of us?

Even worse, the story didn’t offer the comfort of exceptionalism. There was no scandal here; unlike the tabloid shockers involving some other figures in Jewish education, this narrative gave us no perversion, no sinister appetite to help explain it all away. It was just a man with more intellectual gifts than most of us trying harder than most of us — and coming up short. It was its banality that made it shocking.

His failure kept other questions turning in my mind. Did I somehow know more than he did all those years ago when I raised my doubts to him, and it just took him a while to catch up? Or had he been plagued then but decided not to let on? An email to a student that has surfaced on several blogs suggests the latter; he alludes to “personal questions I had had many years before, that I put aside because of what it means to me to be a rabbi and a teacher.” But if that’s the case, it’s hard not to feel like he sacrificed honesty — his greatest virtue — in favor of some teacherly sleight-of-hand. If he was being honest with himself about his doubts, then wasn’t he lying to us?

Of course, one can’t discount communal pressure in his decision to wait so long. In that same email, he made the bold decision to lay blame at the door of the Orthodox establishment. “Given how alone I felt all my life, I could not imagine fighting an uphill battle [as a homosexual] just to remain lonely in the Orthodox community.”

Lonely, it seems, is an apt adjective. Fiercely independent in life and in teaching, Stadtmauer was, to borrow Joseph Solveitchik’s concept, a lonely man of faith, and in a way it is a fitting, if unfortunate, coda to his career that he is now a lonely man of doubt, damned to walk a garden in which he is twice blessed as a non-observant Orthodox rabbi and a gay man whose colleagues all think homosexuality is a sin.

But perhaps this lonely striving may hold some reassurance. After all, despite what was apparently a lifetime of uncertainty, Stadtmauer managed to inspire a generation of students. This was not, on second reflection, a disingenuousness turn; to the contrary, he managed to corral personal doubt and self-questioning into a powerful classroom tool, which is all one could really ask from a teacher. And when it counted, he committed the ultimate act of honesty; a man of lesser integrity than Stadtmauer would have closeted himself, in several senses of the word, for the sake of his career and been a less effective rabbi and homosexual.

Finally, I wonder if his mid-career departure might not suggest my cynical first thought — of his long-held naivete. Perhaps Stadtmauer was not deluded at all; perhaps he simply chose to consider in-depth, and from a position of evolving knowledge, issues the rest of us resolved too much in haste.

Besides, who’s to say where it all leads? In the email Stadtmauer suggests he “may yet return” to observance. Far from a choice made narrowly and in perpetuity, religion is a cycle of embracing and rejecting — a matter of where any of us sit on a wheel at any point in time. Once you feel its pull, it’s hard to really leave, just as it’s hard, sometimes, to really stay.

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