Walking The Walk of Empathy
“I have nothing but empathy.” It’s a common refrain. It seems almost reflexive of all but the most reactionary. But is it genuine? Or is it a mantra for personal exculpation, like Seinfeld’s “not that there’s anything wrong with that”?
Surely empathy requires more than just hackneyed platitudes. People can write think-pieces about how the LGBTQ community deserves sympathy and sensitivity, but where are they when the community needs them?
You might legitimately think that certain halachic issues at play are intractable. This is a non-offensive and coherent position. This might lead you to conclude that “sometimes all we can do is sit down and cry together” — a disputable, but sensitive conclusion. But where were you on Sunday, when the LGBTQ community was crying?
Assuming one isn’t being disingenuous with their calls for empathy, this deficiency is curable. You can start by listening. I can’t speak for the LGBTQ community, but I’ve been listening to them for years. If you listened, you might stop either pretending or being under the delusion that any of the dominant issues are halachic. You might have heard social worker Justin Spiro on Sunday when he said “In all my years working with LGBTQ individuals from Orthodox backgrounds, few have left Orthodoxy or experienced thoughts of suicide due to two verses in Vayikra. People are leaving — spiritually and emotionally — because of how they are treated by the Orthodox community…What halacha prohibits support groups and safe spaces from forming on campus? What halacha prohibits closeted individuals from making life-saving connections with others like them?”
Had you been there on Sunday, you would have noticed that at no point did any speakers make demands to change halacha — at most, they asked people to seriously struggle with the halachic questions. The demands were for visibility. The demands were to end the silence. The gay community wants us to acknowledge their actual existence, and to stop talking about them as an “abstract idea” or “as if they’re not there”. Had you been there, you would see the absurdity of responding by immediately pivoting to halachic hermeneutics.
If you listened to the now numerous accounts by gay people in YU or the Orthodox community, including the famous 2009 panel, you would understand why their demands are so important. You would understand, as Justin Spiro put it on Sunday, that “Being LGBTQ is not primarily about a taivah — it’s not about wanting sex. It’s an experiential process of growing up feeling different, other than, less than, questioning everything about yourself.” If you understood, you would stop talking about “sexual proclivities” or making crude analogies to other proscriptions and predilections.
Are you really empathetic to that experience? Have you tried to understand it? As they hold back tears and give stirring accounts of suicidal thoughts, fear of rejection, desperate prayers, hurting loved ones and shattering future expectations, as gay people struggle to explain the torturous process of coming to terms with who they are, they almost always point to the same dominant issues. The silence. The loneliness. The shame. The fear. The feeling of being fundamentally broken and having nowhere to turn. All reinforced by the passive marginalization, as their existence and presence as part of the community goes unacknowledged.
This is why they need a space. This is why they need a forum. This is why they need to be acknowledged. Silence has always been the biggest complaint. Silence kills.
The absence of homophobia is not the same as the presence of acceptance. You can recite your mantras of empathy and sensitivity. But have you actively made efforts to ensure the queer people in your community feel safe? Have you demanded your institutions grant them the bare minimum for safety and security? Have you made it clear to your peers — some of whom may be in the closet — that their sexual orientation cannot possibly have a deleterious impact on your relationship? Is it known that you unconditionally accept LGBTQ people for who they are? Do you?
I have no claim to the stories of LGBTQ Jews, and I cannot speak for them. I can only listen to them and amplify their voices. Because I have nothing but empathy. I have nothing but compassion. And as Rabbi Steven Greenberg said on Sunday, “Compassion requires us not only to care but to stand up in real ways.” Silence and complacency are unacceptable. This is why I listen. This is why I act. This is why I stand up.
Until you do, your armchair calls for empathy ring hollow.