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Disabuse Community of Intolerance

The resignation last week of Rabbi David Kaye from the educational program Panim, after revelations that he had solicited a 13-year-old boy online for sex, elicited the usual expressions of shock from the Jewish community. Of course, we all should be outraged when such immoral conduct is brought to light, but those who follow the Jewish world know that Kaye is hardly the first rabbi to have engaged in it in recent years.

In 2001, for example, Rabbi Jerrold Levy was sentenced to 78 months in prison for sex crimes involving teenage boys. Indeed, a 2000 photo now circulating on the Internet features Kaye, Levy, and Israel Kestenbaum — three rabbis, one from each major denomination, who were all later found to have solicited minors for sex online. And for every one case that makes the news, those of us who work in the Jewish community hear a dozen stories: the whispers about this teacher, that rabbi, and the scandal the school tried to sweep under the rug.

Rabbinic offenders have seduced both boys and girls, but one cannot help but notice that a disproportionate number of them have targeted males. There are no reliable statistics for rabbinic sexual abuse, but government studies show that in the general population, one-third of child sex abuse victims are male, even though only 3-5% of adult men identify as homosexual. Indeed, approximately 16% of boys are sexually abused before the age of 16.

What is going on? Are there suddenly more closeted gay rabbis than there were a decade ago? Or are we, like the Catholic community, merely bringing to light what has been a dark secret for many years?

It does not appear that the problem in the Jewish world is of the same magnitude as that in the Catholic one. Perhaps, as some theorize, this is because the rabbinate, with its expectation of marriage, is less attractive to closeted gay men than the celibate priesthood. Then again, we cannot know how much abuse took place when rabbinic authority was impossible to challenge, and when incidents were quietly buried. Perhaps our scandal is just beginning.

Generally, cases like that of Kaye — who has been praised, in recent days, as a decent man and a good father to his two daughters — elicit responses like “he needs help.” Surely he does; how could a well-known rabbi risk everything by sending a naked photo of himself, with his face fully visible, to someone he didn’t know? Merely that Kaye’s judgment was so clouded bespeaks the severity of his desperation.

Yet the question we must ask ourselves is: Where did that desperation come from? Healthy people, gay or straight, do not molest 13-year-olds. Only deeply disturbed people do — and those are precisely the sorts of people created by the deception and repression of the “closet.” Moreover, according to the American Medical Association, 98% of men who sexually abuse boys report that they are heterosexual. Are these really all sick, straight men? Or are they actually, in the words Kaye used when seducing his target online, “waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay in the closet”?

Unquestionably, predators like Kaye are the ones responsible for their conduct. But they do not operate in a vacuum, and the Jewish community bears responsibility as well, for the way we perpetuate the circumstances that cause them to hate themselves, distort their sexuality into something dangerous — and, if statistics are accurate, kill themselves at the rate of 4,000 each year in the United States alone. We create “the closet,” through our intolerant actions and inactions, our cruel and selective reading of Jewish law, and our endlessly proclaiming the unacceptability of a sexual orientation which is either genetically determined, or fixed so early in childhood as to be an unchangeable part of one’s being. In short, we create the very monsters about whom we later profess shock.

Nor are we doing so based on religious authority. Only a minority of non-Orthodox rabbis still believe that the narrow prohibitions of Leviticus 18 extend to all the sexual behavior of gay men (and women). Yet many Jews who are quite lax about their Sabbath observance and routinely look the other way regarding intermarriage become religious fundamentalists when it comes to homosexuality. Consider your reaction to a Sabbath-breaker on the one hand — who merits the death penalty under rabbinic law — and a religious gay Jew on the other. Around whom are you more comfortable? Whom do you fully accept, and whom do you merely tolerate? And is your choice really based on religion? Or, for that matter, on reason?

The “closet” is entirely the wrong metaphor for the kind of repression which leads to acts like Kaye’s. I should know — I was in the closet for 15 years, and it is a much more odious, terrible phenomenon than merely hiding in a wardrobe while you do what you oughtn’t. Imagine lying to everyone you know, all the time. Imagine feeling that your heart, your way to love and relationship and sexual expression, is actually distorted, evil and broken. And imagine believing that, because of something you cannot change, God hates you.

Of course, under such circumstances, and in a world that has made clear it would reject you if it knew the truth, you would hide your sexuality — perhaps, as I did, even from yourself. Of course you would do everything you could to somehow “make yourself straight”: maybe marriage, maybe seeking spiritual solace to fill an emotional gap, maybe even the thoroughly discredited, and completely ineffective, forms of “reparative therapy” being peddled within the religious community and inflicted on innocent young people every day. And of course, you would fail, because sexuality cannot be changed.

And then, without any appropriate means of expression, your sexual urges would find inappropriate ones. Personally, I never engaged in activity such as Rabbi Kaye’s, and never once violated the trust of anyone, of any age. But I was hardly a healthy adult when I was in the closet. I met men for sex, not relationship. I lied about my age, my name, my background. And I rarely went on a second “date.”

Today, I am happily partnered to a future rabbi, and am blessed to be in a loving, long-term relationship. That’s what “coming out” does — it enables gay people to be as healthy and loving as everyone else. But as the director of a gay and lesbian Jewish organization, I receive emails every week from men and women still struggling in the closet, from all across the ideological spectrum. Charedi adults, modern Orthodox kids, women and men — I’ve met them all, and while none, to my knowledge, has become a predator like Kaye, all are trapped in the same web of deception, repression and desperation. Many are like powder kegs, ready to explode. Really, what do we expect will happen to someone who fights his innermost being all his life, never has a proper outlet for his sexual expression, and lies to everyone he knows?

And then there are those open secrets. The influential rabbi who was forced into ‘reparative therapy’ after being accused of sexual harassment by a young male student. The youth director with a past. “Everyone” knows about these secrets, yet no one does anything — even though those of us who have been in the closet know just how dangerous it is. Indeed, one of the most important public voices on the issue of Judaism and homosexuality himself has a “record” of homosexual misconduct, both on his own part and among other members of his family. Yet we pretend that none of this matters, or that we don’t know what we know, or that rabbis and communal leaders are impartial about demons they themselves are battling.

Each person is responsible for his or her own conduct. But as long as we create the conditions that make misconduct all but inevitable, the right response to the scandal of Kaye is not “he needs help” — it’s “we need help.” We need to stop demonizing what is natural, healthy and good, using selective piety to mask our fear. We need to stop believing that what God made can be unmade through coercion or brainwashing. We need to acknowledge that the closeted-rabbi-who-everyone-knows-about may not be worthy of our trust. And we need to see that what causes scandals is not homosexuality, but its repression. Until we do these things, our exclusion and repression will continue to lead to their tragic, seemingly inexorable, results.

Jay Michaelson is director of Nehirim: A Spiritual Initiative for GLBT Jews.

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