Compiled by Luke Ford

The beginning of this Jewish Journal debate on homosexuality

Dennis Prager writes:

By the end of January (1997), the Jewish Journal had published my one essay on homosexuality and rabbis, and then published an editor's rebuttal, a statement on the low moral level of my ideas signed by 16 rabbis, seven letters attacking my decency, and one letter agreeing with me.

Had I written that Israel should make Jerusalem a bi-national city; or that Jews should consider adding Buddhism to their Jewish identity; or that Jews should observe the Sabbath on any day of the week that best suits them, I would not have received more opprobrium.

There are a number of reasons for this:

First, Los Angeles has a particularly large concentration of left-wing rabbis.

Second, the Los Angeles Jewish Journal is the most monolithically left of any mainstream big-city Jewish newspaper. That is why the editor would not publish my piece unless accompanied by a rebuttal. While pieces from the Left are published every week without rebuttal, a piece against the Left cannot be published alone.

Third, while most practicing Jews agree with me, most Jews, like most non-Jews, have been rendered publicly silent by the ferocity of leftist invective on the gay issue. No decent person wants to be called "homophobe."

Fourth, few people know either the need for, or the importance of, making the case for preserving the heterosexual ideal. I have been writing on Judaism for 25 years, and have only recently come to understand the heterosexual revolution that the Torah and Judaism wrought.

I had decided not to reply to any of the letters that maligned me (not one dealt with issues I actually raised), but when the 16 rabbis maligned me, I knew that a response was necessary.

Prager's response was headlined on the Journal's cover page as: "Dennis Prager: Firing Salvos at his Rabbinic Critics." Prager writes:

Sixteen "heterosexual, gay, lesbian and bisexual" rabbis signed a letter to The Jewish Journal, calling my piece on homosexuality and Judaism "cruel," a "homophobic diatribe" and "poorly reasoned."

Concerning the charge of "cruelty," my article did not contain a harsh word, let alone words of cruelty. In fact, I wrote that a homosexual Jew is, of course, as much a Jew as any of us, and that gay-bashing is a moral offense. I wrote that Judaism is rooted in the ideal of heterosexuality, but there is not a shred of cruelty in that. The only cruelty in this whole issue is in the rabbi's letter.

As for "homophobic," shame on these rabbis for emulating the McCarthy right by giving someone they disagree with a horrible label instead of responding to arguments. The rabbis did not quote me once. They wouldn't, because if they did, it would be obvious that they engage only in ad hominem attacks, not intellectual or religious responses.

"Poorly reasoned"? Andrew Sullivan, a prominent gay spokesman and former editor of the New Republic, publicly lauded my arguments as a model of fair debate on the issue. And if my article was so poorly argued, why didn't any one of these rabbis write a response showing the world just how poor my arguments are?

And, now, bisexuality is defined as Jewish too. I thought the argument on behalf of Judaism holding homosexuality as just as Jewish a practice as heterosexuality as just as Jewish a practice as heterosexuality rested on homosexuals not having a choice. But don't bisexuals, by definition, have a choice of which sex to love?

What depressed me about the letter was not the name-calling instead of dialogue. I experienced that when I debated the Jewish rightist, the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, and I experience it from the Jewish left. I am used to being attacked, since, unlike these rabbis who work and live among those who agree with them, I am used to debating my positions and being attacked every day, three hours a day.

What is most depressing is to see three respected Conservative signatories to the letter. With my friend Elliot Dorff's signature on this letter, and that of the Conservative movement's teacher of prospective converts, another friend, Rabbi Neal Weinberg, and the signature of one of the seminary's former heads, one wonders what has become of Conservative Judaism. Does it only differ from the left wing of Reform in its commitment to religious rituals? Does Conservative Judaism actually now hold that drinking milk after eating chicken is religiously wrong, but a person having sex with both sexes is religiously acceptable? Does Rabbi Weinberg teach prospective converts to Judaism that Judaism doesn't care whether a Jew has sex with the same sex or even with both sexes? Would Rabbi Rembaum perform a same-sex marriage? If he would perform such a marriage, has he told his congregants? And if he wouldn't, why isn't he labeled a "homophobe"?

Most Jews, myself included, were appalled at the hate-filled descriptions of the late Yitzhak Rabin that emanated from parts of the Jewish right. In what way do the hate-filled descriptions of me by these rabbis and all the other nine letters you published against me differ?

I am disappointed by something else - the absence of public support from the many rabbis who I know agree with me. Hopefully, The Journal will now receive a letter signed by twice as many rabbis in support of what I wrote. But if the Los Angeles Jewish community and its rabbis do not find maintaining the Jewish male-female ideal worthy of their attention, I do not want to be a voice crying in the wilderness, while those arguing for acceptance of bisexual behavior among rabbis are considered mainstream.

In the next issue of the Jewish Journal (2-7-97), Rabbi Dorff responded under a cover note: "Rabbi Elliot Dorff vs. Dennis Prager."

No "firing salvos" mentioned. The Journal also published it on the internet. The response was titled "Homosexuality, Judaism and Rabbis: A Conservative Response." Rabbi Elliot N. Dorf, is rector and professor at the University of Judaism and is vice chair of Conservative Judaism's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.

Letters then poured into The Jewish Journal, supporting Dennis and his position. His best friend, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin wrote:

The letter you published charging Dennis Prager with being homophobic is so untrue that I find it painful to see that it was signed by no less than 16 rabbis, all of them bearers of a tradition that regards spreading a damaging untruth about a person, as one of the most serious offenses a Jew can commit.

I do not know most of the rabbis on the list, but there are four whom I do know and for whom I have sincere affection and respect: Rabbis Elliot Dorff, Debra Orenstein, Joel Rembaum and Neal Weinberg. I turn to these four people - I am sorry to do so in a public forum, but since Dennis was attacked in public, I feel the need to respond in public - to ask if they carefully read Dennis' original article. And if they did, could they please cite what it is that he wrote that justifies them labeling him homophobic, a label as ugly as antisemitic.

Conservative Rabbi Michael Gotlieb of Congregation Kehilat Ma'Arav, Santa Monica, wrote in:

I have known Dennis Prager for 18 years. I worked for him for 11 summer sessions at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, where he served as the director up until 1983. He has influenced countless numbers of Jews (myself included), many of whom went on to the rabbinate and other key posts of leadership throughout the Jewish community. Say what you will about Dennis, one thing he is not: homophobic.

What pains me about the letter, "Rabbis, One and All," is its tone. Who should know the power of words and the pain they can inflict, more than my fellow rabbis? My 16 colleagues who signed the letter did nothing more than attack Prager personally. They offered nothing in the way of an alternative point of view. … To merely discredit someone with whom you disagree on such a sensitive issue is as unsophisticated as it is ungodly.

Rabbi Leonid Feldman, of Temple Emanu-El of Palm Beach, FL, wrote: "As a Conservative rabbi, I was ashamed that some of my classmates at the seminary participated in the ugly personal attack against Dennis Prager. I was also shocked to find that one of the teachers I used to respect [Dr. Dorf], also participated in unfairly discrediting an opponent instead of addressing the issues.

"As a former Soviet citizen and a Refusenik, I was horrified by the similarity between the letter signed by the rabbis and the letters against Refuseniks and dissidents that used to be printed in Pravda."

Reform Rabbi Mordacai Finely, of Ohr Torah, wrote: "…Dennis has conducted his side of the debate responsibly, accurately, thoughtfully and, considering that he is taking a side that can hurt people's feelings, humanely.

"…Rabbi Dorf stated that Mr. Prager "maligned" Conservative Judaism. I could find no maligning whatsoever in Dennis' response to his detractors. Rabbi Dorff states: "Prager accuses the Conservative movement of restricting itself to ritual matters alone." In fact, Prager only asked if Conservative different from Reform in matters of ritual alone…

"Indeed, the greatest irony of this whole debate is found in another part of Rabbi Dorff's response to Prager. Dorff states, "…rabbinical schools of the [Conservative] movement do not admit sexually active homosexuals to their student bodies…" This is precisely the stance which Prager has advocated, but one that Dorff labels…as "morally odious and deeply un-Jewish." "

In the spring of 1997, Dennis devoted three issues of his journal The Prager Perspective (TPP@aol.com, 310-558-3958) to this debate over Judaism and homosexuality. Prager writes:

Long ago, I decided that I would not let compliments go to my head and that I would not let insults go to my heart. Rather I would try to let compliments go to my heart - I never want to take for granted the kind words that people offer me; and I would try to let the insults go to my head - to analyze the words of those who attack me and try to figure out whether I could have said anything differently so as not to induce such anger at me. In this case, I do not know how I could have written my original essay in kinder language.

My second, and stronger, reaction to the letters against me was to feel reinforced in my beliefs. I am not certain I am right on this issue. That is why I asked so many questions in my original essay. If the rabbis and the letter writers who disagreed with me had actually offered answers to these questions… I would have reconsidered my position.

That not one of my opponents offered a single argument against any of my arguments or a single response to any of my questions has, therefore, only reinforced my belief that I am right on this issue. If these people only understood this, they never would have called me names. The low intellectual and ethical level of all the letters against me had a powerfully reinforcing effect.

After weeks of letters to the Jewish Journal in late 1996 and early 1997, then quiet, Dennis Prager thought the controversy had ended. Then came the letter signed by 16 rabbis describing his writing as "cruel, homophobic and poorly argued." After coming under attack by many of their colleagues, five of the rabbis (Orenstein, Dorff, Sacks-Rosen, Weinberg, Wynne) issued this response:

We signed the substantive portion of the original rabbinic response…[that] affirmed our desire for a pluralistic and inclusive rabbinate, made up of…various sexual orientations…

We neither saw nor approved, and from what we have gathered, at least a few other colleagues neither saw nor approved, a preamble that characterized Dennis Prager's position in unfortunate and unjustified terms. While we disagree profoundly with Dennis Prager's argument, we regret that out names were attached to those personal remarks and, more important, that they were printed at all.

We hope that people on all sides of this issue will avoid provocative rhetoric and engage in this important communal discussion with respect and civility.

No apology. No admitting I was wrong, after defaming the name of a good person. Just some excuse that they did not know what they were signing. Rabbis Dorff, Sacks-Rosen, Orenstein and Wynne did not seem particularly bothered that their names had been attached to such a vicious document. But after being attacked for their incivility, they backtracked by claiming that the most nasty sections of the letter were unknown to them. They say that the first paragraph of their letter had been added after their signatures. Supposedly 13 of the 16 rabbis were surprised by the inclusion of the paragraph.

"Being on the left," says Prager, "means never having to say you're sorry. When you are certain that you are compassionate and your adversaries are not - and no people are as sure of their compassion as those on the Left - how can you sin against your adversaries, who, by definition, lack compassion."

One rabbi, however, did apologize. Rabbi Neal Weinberg called and faxed Prager saying that he wanted to repent. Prager forgave him.

Rabbi Daniel Gordis took on his colleague Elliott Dorff in an essay that he submitted to The Jewish Journal that the editor, Gene Lichtenstein, refused to print unedited. So Gordis decided to not publish it there. The Journal however did publish the pro-gay essay of Conservative Rabbi Harold Schulweis.

And where were the Orthodox? Prager E-mailed a rabbi on the Orthodox Right, a friend [perhaps Yitzhock Adlerstein at YULA?], who responded:

You don't REALLY have any doubts about the Orthodox position on homosexuality, do? The number of Orthodox rabbis who still bother to look at the Journal, though, is probably less than five. I am not kidding.

And you haven't exactly made it easy, over time, for people in the Orthodox camp to run into your corner of the ring and help hold your hand aloft. There are too many other positions that come with your territory that we have to distance ourselves from.

So we are all in a bind. You're discovering that the only ones who will hold a line in the final analysis are the Orthodox. But you don't always like that line, and then do exactly what the Conservatives are doing on this issue: pick and choose. So you are left out in the cold.

And so are we. We completely, categorically, enthusiastically support what you are saying about homosexuality - and can't find a safe way to say it.

So all I can do is offer you a personal congratulations; an invitation to join Truth any time you want; and the satisfaction of knowing that outside of the pages of the Jewish Journal there is no question that you have the complete support of the frum community. Hopefully of the Ribbono Shel Olam {Master of the Universe] as well.