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Why Rabbi Gil Steinlauf’s Coming Out Is Watershed Moment for Jews

In 1977, Gerson D. Cohen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, approved a petition by the Rabbinical Assembly to create a committee to study the role of women as spiritual leaders in the Conservative movement.

The voices included were varied, some in favor of the ordination of women as rabbis, some opposed. It is interesting to note that among the objections, one was rooted in sociology and economics. As Rabbi Gordon Tucker, then assistant to the chancellor, noted in his 1979 report on the results of the taskforce, the commission was concerned that:

“Female Conservative rabbis might at first face great difficulty in finding congregational positions. … but, after weighing the evidence, it was found that, in truth] the receptivity to female rabbis in the communities was much higher now than it had been several years ago. … Apparently, familiarity with ordained women over the last six years had taken effect.”

I remembered this concern when I read the letter sent to the Adas Israel community in Washington, D.C. by its president Arnie Podgorsky in support of Rabbi Gil Steinlauf, who shared in that same communication the news that he is gay. Putting aside the letter’s eloquence and the obvious respect the president and rabbi have for each other and for their community, the very fact that they wrote the letter together and, most significantly, that the lay leadership of Adas Israel stands in support of their rabbi explicitly manifests increasing LGBT inclusion by the Jewish world.

This communal trajectory isn’t limited to the Conservative movement’s ideology. Rabbi Jason Klein is the first openly gay president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association. This coming March, Rabbi Denise Eger will become the first openly gay or lesbian rabbi to serve as President of the Reform Movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Even Orthodox Judaism has come a long way since Rabbi Steven Greenberg came out in 1999, as organizations like Keshet and GLYDSA (The Gay and Lesbian Yeshiva Day School Alumni Association) are being utilized. Some Orthodox communities have become more welcoming and understanding of their LGBT members. National leaders such as Rabbi Haskel Lookstein are speaking out against excluding LGBT Jews from educational and communal organizations.

Rabbi Steinlauf’s personal life is not a communal talking point. But as he wrote to his community, “it is plain to all of us that because of my position as Rabbi of Adas Israel, this private matter may also have a public aspect.”

Given this truth, what might the Jewish world learn from this momentary glimpse into a Jewish spiritual leader’s coming out and from his Jewish community’s consequent embrace?

There are already those who are commenting on this moment of personal and communal revelation with scorn and derision, and they have truly missed its redemptive power, translating it through their own inflexibility, missing what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks terms “the dignity of difference,” where every person and group is called to reframe the way we experience the varieties of human experience.

It would be a wishful mistake to presume that every community is already as accepting as Adas Israel. And it would be criminal to ignore the fact that though 29 years have passed since the ordination of women as rabbis in the Conservative movement, female colleagues are not treated as equals in communities (neither in the job search process, nor during negotiations). But we are an aspirational people who wishes to love and live with integrity, who knows that the image of God is not an aspect of only some of us.

It is humbling, as Rabbi Steinlauf’s colleague, to read the bravery and love he expressed for every person in his life, including himself. He and his community are true dugma’ot, or examples, to us all as we try “continuing the delicate task of marking and celebrating our shared human journeys in joy and in holiness,” as Rabbi Steinlauf himself put it.

The journey of each soul takes its own course. Our spiritual task is to embrace and learn and celebrate and weep. And leave judgment up to the Divine.

Menachem Creditor is rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, California and sits on the Executive Council of the Rabbinical Assembly of America. He blogs at menachemcreditor.org

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