How newsy is something if everyone knows about it and agrees with it?
That's the unasked, unanswered question in a breaking story in the Washington Post, in which a leading D.C.-area rabbi announces -- drum roll -- that he's gay.
These days, coming-out stories are about as unusual as entering-rehab stories. But here goes the Post:
The leader of one of the Washington region’s most prominent synagogues on Monday came out as gay, telling his thousands of congregants in a brutally personal e-mail that a lifelong effort to deny his sexuality was over and that he and his wife of 20 years would be divorcing.
“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,” Rabbi Gil Steinlauf wrote to members of Adas Israel Congregation, in Northwest Washington.
The announcement follows activities by Steinlauf including the first gay wedding in that synagogue and an article in a Jewish newspaper called "The queerness of love: A Jewish case for same-sex marriage." The 800+ -word Post story reports also that Steinlauf has been nudging his movement, Conservative Judaism, to embrace same-sex couples. And the rabbi's coming-out gets a nod from two top officials of the synagogue.
So, um, where is the news? Apparently it's the e-mail that the rabbi sent to all 1,420 households in his congregation. The e-mail tells of a struggle with homosexuality going back to childhood.
He married his wife, Batya, "out of a belief that this was the right thing for me," Steinlauf says in the email. He doesn't say how long she's known, or whether they discussed the effect of his double life on their three teenage children. He just calls her a "wonderful woman" who 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."
Steinlauf's e-mail tries to couch his decision in religious terms, with a Talmudic quote about integrity. He writes that he remains bound with his children and future ex-wife "by a brit mispachah, a covenant of family." And he says he has to "live with the reality, or personal Torah, of my life."
How is the congregation taking this? Well, the synagogue president says he stands with the rabbi. And the temple's social action chairman "hoped the congregation would understand Steinlauf's journey," the Post says.
Did the reporter, Michelle Boorstein, ask any dissenters in the synagogue? They may not come forward themselves, but I'll bet some are known to the two leaders she quoted. Or did an editor cut their quotes?
And how about the rabbi's wife? According to the article, Rabbi Batya Steinlauf -- yes, she's ordained, too -- "leads social justice and interfaith efforts for the Jewish Community Relations Council." Sounds like someone who can speak for herself. But all we get in this story is what he said she said.
There's also a slight leftward tilt in the Post article. It says twice that Steinlauf angled his ministry toward "both traditional and more progressive Jews" -- "traditional" apparently meaning regressive. It says also that Steinlauf has been on the "forefront" of Conservative Judaism on same-sex marriage. Opponents, of course, are the rearguard or the reactionaries.
The Post does consult an outside source, but he just puts it all on the congregation:
The Rev. Jim Keenan, an ethicist at Boston College who writes on pastoral leadership, said people have complex views on what they really want from clergy. People want clergy to both understand brokenness and flaws but also be role models.
“Some people will be like: ‘I’m sure he’s a human being, but I don’t want to see how he is one,’ ” Keenan said Monday. “What’s important is for a clergyperson to meet the expectations of the parish that he or she has. . . . I think we’re starting to look at our clergy as human beings.”
Well, yeah, clergy need to meet member's expectations that what they see is what they get. But Steinlauf calls himself gay rather than bisexual -- even though he admits that his 20-year marriage "shared a love so deep and real."
Ellen McCarthy of the Post was all ready for me. Well, not me specifically, but me and everyone else who questions how coming-out stories are news anymore. Her 969-word apologia -- longer than the original article -- makes a couple of subjective arguments:
[W]hen a rabbi tells his congregation he is gay, it makes news. When a principal comes out to his students, it’s news. When a former child actor tells Oprah she has a girlfriend, as Raven-Symone did on a show that aired this weekend, it’s picked up on gossip sites around the Web.
We still care, apparently. And LGBT activists say we probably will care for a long time to come — and that it’s probably a good thing.
“As long as there are people who still can’t accept or acknowledge the fact that LGBT people are everywhere, from all walks of life, all occupations, there will be some sensationalizing whenever someone that you wouldn’t expect to be turns out to be a member of the community,” says Candace Gingrich, associate director for youth and campus engagement at the Human Rights Campaign. “The act of coming out is always going to be important to that individual — unfortunately, it is still a struggle for many.”
In other words, such events are news because the news media report them. And they're important because they're important to the people involved. Uh-huh.
McCarthy asks the editor of a gay newspaper how long it'll be until being gay isn't news:
“I think it’ll be a long time. There are still many areas of American life where people remain deeply closeted, from religion to the sports world to corporate America,” says Kevin Naff, editor of the Washington Blade, which covers gay news. “Hollywood is a great example. There is still a stigma, still a belief that if you’re open it’s going to cost you jobs and cost you opportunities.”
Leaving aside the matter of apples-oranges-pears -- because sports attitudes, corporate cultures and religious doctrines are not equivalent -- Naff's reliance on "stigma" and "belief" is totally speculative. And it's contradicted by 21st century Hollywood. How many people in entertainment over the last decade have lost jobs and opportunities for being gay? Certainly not Ellen DeGeneres or Raven-Symone, mentioned in McCarthy's column. And far fewer, I'll bet, than people similarly penalized in Hollywood for being fundamentalist Christians.
But nothing in McCarthy's column, or Boorstein's for that matter, acknowledges how long homosexuality has been accepted in Conservative Judaism. A committee of its leading rabbis approved ordaining gays in 2006 and wrote a ritual for gay marriage in 2012.
Let's recap: Rabbi says he's gay after years of pro-gay activism, in a synagogue where no dissenters are quoted, whose leaders support him, in a Jewish movement that long ago approved gay rabbis and same-sex marriage. And Washington Post writers -- and their editors -- spend nearly 1,800 words over two days reporting this, then defending their obsession.
And we thought newspapers had to cut back. The Post, at least, must have a lot of leisure to dwell on non-news.