When Your Rabbi Comes Out as Gay
Or, we live in remarkable times
A few days ago, I posted a piece about my rabbi, Gil Steinlauf, the senior rabbi of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., the largest Conservative movement-affiliated synagogue in the nation's capital. The post concerned an excellent Rosh Hashanah sermon he had delivered about Israel and Hamas.
It turns out that there was a lot more on Rabbi Steinlauf's mind during the High Holidays than just the Middle East. This afternoon, he e-mailed his thousands of congregants to announce that he and his wife, Batya, a respected rabbi in her own right, were getting divorced, because he has come to the realization that he is gay.
There is sadness here, of course, because Gil and Batya have had, in many ways, a good, even model, marriage (their three children are testament to this), but there is also relief, and anxiety, and most of all a leap into the unknown. I am posting his letter in full below (with his permission) because it is beautiful and thoughtful and heartbreaking and deeply religious:
I am writing to share with you that after twenty years of marriage, my wife Batya and I have decided to divorce. We have arrived at this heartbreaking decision because I have come to understand that I am gay. These are great upheavals in my personal life, as in Batya’s and that of our children. But 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. We recognize that you may well need a period of reflection to absorb this sudden news. I am most grateful for the support Adas’ lay leaders and clergy have provided my family and me in the short time since I brought this matter to their attention. That support makes it possible for us to prepare for this new chapter in our lives, and for me in my ongoing service as Rabbi of Adas Israel Congregation.
While I struggled in my childhood and adolescence with a difference I recognized in myself, that feeling of difference did not then define my identity, much less the spouse I would seek. I sought to marry a woman because of a belief that this was the right thing for me. This conviction was reinforced by having grown up in a different era, when the attitudes and counsel of adult professionals and peers encouraged me to deny this uncertain aspect of myself. I met and fell in love with Batya, a wonderful woman who loved and accepted me exactly as I am. Together, we have shared a love so deep and real, and together we have built a loving home with our children—founded principally on the values and joys of Jewish life and tradition. But my inner struggle never did go away. Indeed, Batya herself has supported me through this very personal inner struggle that she knew to be the source of great pain and confusion in my life over decades.
A text I’ve sat with for years is from the Babylonian Talmud (Yoma 72b) and states, “Rabbah said, any scholar whose inside does not match his outside is no scholar. Abaye, and some say Ravah bar Ulah, said [one whose inside does not match his outside] is called an abomination.” Ultimately, the dissonance between my inside and my outside became undeniable, then unwise, and finally intolerable. With much pain and tears, together with my beloved wife, I have come to understand that I could walk my path with the greatest strength, with the greatest peace in my heart, with the greatest healing and wholeness, when I finally acknowledged that I am a gay man. Sadly, for us this means that Batya and I can no longer remain married, despite our fidelity throughout our marriage and our abiding friendship and love. As our divorce is not born of rancor, we pray that together with our children we will remain bound by a brit mishpachah, a covenant of family.
I hope and pray, too, that I will be the best father, family member, rabbi, friend, and human being I can be, now that I have resolved a decades-long struggle. The truth is that like anyone else, I have no choice but to live with the reality, or personal Torah, of my life. I ask for your continued trust in me to guide you as your spiritual leader as I truly am. I also ask for your love and kindness toward Batya and our children as they seek to live their lives with dignity, as they journey the challenging road ahead.
I feel immensely proud that for many generations our congregation has set standards of vision and leadership in the American Jewish community and am sincerely grateful for the privilege of serving Adas Israel. Now, with deepened humility, I look forward to continuing the delicate task of marking and celebrating our shared human journeys in joy and in holiness.
Rabbi Steinlauf fell into an odd liminal moment in history. If he were a 25-year-old rabbi, there would be no drama here, no nothing, in fact, because he would simply be a rabbi who happens to be gay. The Conservative movement of Judaism has changed over the past decade or two in unimaginable ways. I have trouble picturing a synagogue that wouldn't hire a gay rabbi. On the other hand, if he were 60 years old now, with the same identity, he most likely would have been able to glide toward retirement, his secret intact.
There is no need for this sort of secret anymore. There is no reason for the rabbi of a progressive synagogue to hide from his congregants who he, in fact, is. These are difficult times for the Steinlaufs (it should go without saying that Batya Steinlauf is a woman of valor), and they should have our prayers. I am also proud of them, as are the other congregants I've spoken to so far today (one of my fellow congregants, Frank Foer, the editor of the New Republic, noted that Rabbi Steinlauf has just discovered the most dramatic possible way to break the Yom Kippur fast).
These are uncharted waters, but I have faith in our synagogue, and in the broader Conservative movement. It also seems to me that a clergyman who knows himself and doesn't engage in concealment will be of great service to his flock.