A Journey To Empathy

Rabbi Ben Goldstein
November 22, 2013
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As I mentioned in a previous post, I grew up in an Orthodox community. For those of you who might not be aware, that means that I was taught that every word of the Torah was written by God and is eternal and Just. That also meant that anyone who went against the Torah was committing a potentially grave sin and must change their ways.

So, like many people my age, I was raised to believe that homosexuality was a sin. I was told that it was actually an “abomination.”[1] So that was it, open and shut. Homosexuality is a sin, God disapproves and that’s the end. We were never taught what that meant for people who were attracted to people of the same sex. We were never taught what it meant to look someone in the eyes and tell them that their every instinct is wrong in the eyes of God.

It wasn’t until I got to college that my thinking began to change in a profound way.  By the time I was a freshman at college, I had taken off my Kippah[2] and traded in for long hair, an earring and a goatee. I thought I was so rebellious and looked so cool.[3] I remember being at a party that first year of college with one of my friends who had also left Orthodoxy behind.

As the night progressed, more and more people could be found in corners in all sorts of embraces. I remember finding my friend in the corner in a passionate embrace with another male student. After a few minutes, he pushed the other man away and ran onto the fire escape. When I found him out there, he was crying and rocking back and forth saying “I can’t be, I can’t be,” over and over again.

I’ll never forget that moment. I’ll never forget the first time I saw the consequences of that verse in Leviticus. It was a profound feeling, to see that my view of the Torah and my view of humanity could so be so at odds with each other.

After college, I worked with the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles where I spoke about tolerance and acceptance. Matthew Shepard had been killed only a short time before I went to work there. For three years I told his story to countless high school classes. Time and time again I told Matthew Shepard’s story. Time and time again people cried at the brutality that he experienced. And yet personally, I found myself still struggling with what I perceived as the word of God. I found myself simultaneously asking over and over, why that verse could be in the Torah, and whether or not it could actually be the word of God.

In 2005, my first year in rabbinical school, the Conservative movement was wrestling with the issue of Gay marriage and whether or not someone who was gay could be ordained as a rabbi. At my school, one of the professors and the dean were the authors of the teshuvah, a legal responsa which permitted gay marriage and ordination. At the time, I was still very conflicted on the issue, and therefore refused to sign a petition which endorsed one teshuvah over another.

As I sit here writing this, I can’t tell you when exactly I changed my mind. I can’t tell you of one conversation, or point to one epiphany that made me say, “Eureka! I believe in equality for all!” Two concepts that do run through my mind, are the Rabbinic notions of din and rachamim, justice and compassion. On Yom Kippur, when we ask God to judge us, we ask that God let compassion overcome justice.

Din and Rachamim, justice and compassion. Justice is not possible without compassion. Justice is not just without thinking of its consequences. Justice is not found in a book, separate from the human experience. There is no justice in telling someone that who they are is wrong. There is no goodness or righteousness in someone denying who they are. We are told in the Torah, lo tov heyot adam levado, it is not good for someone to be alone. As a rabbi who speaks about the love of God, I can think of nothing more blessed in the world than someone finding a partner with whom they can share their life.

I know that I am late to the party. I know that for many, this article will be met with, “yeah, duh. What took you so long?” We are all on our own journey, our own path. We all come to things at different speeds and with our own background.

As a rabbi, and as a Jew, I continue to struggle with the divinity of the Torah. I don’t know who wrote it, or what the origins are. I only know that for too long, I have sided with a book (albeit a holy one) over my fellow human being. In good conscience, I can no longer do that. I know that this book that I love, this Torah, does not replace my love for my fellow human being.

“Lo tov heyot adam levado, it is not good for someone to be alone.” To all those who find love, I wish you many blessings as you build your lives together. May your love for each other grow and flourish.

Sincerely,

Rabbi Ben Goldstein


[1] Only later were we told that the word “abomination” was also used to describe the eating of non-kosher animals.

[2] I thought permanently.

[3] I’ve seen the pictures, I most certainly did not.

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Rabbi Ben Goldstein was ordained from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in May of 2010. Since that time he has been working as the rabbi for a congregation in suburban New Jersey (yes, that’s right, I said New Jersey). He has been watching television and movies ever since he was old enough to have the core strength to sit up without falling over. Goldstein's love for the performing arts led him to pursue it as a career and he even managed to star in such cinematic triumphs as Jewz N The Hood. After a number of Signs from our Creator (and more than a few casting directors) he realized that actors don’t take themselves nearly serious enough so he needed to find something else to do. Taking a look at the job description of a rabbi (writer, counselor, teacher, performer, student) he thought it sounded like a really great way to spend his life. In addition to being trained as a rabbi, Goldstein has an encyclopedic knowledge of television and movies from the mid-80s to today. That makes him either a fantastic Jeopardy contestant or the world’s most boring cocktail party guest. You can reach Rabbi Goldstein at rabbi@tbemc.org.

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