When a Rabbi Comes Out to His Congregation

A prominent Conservative rabbi announces that he is gay.

Last week, Rabbi Gil Stainlauf of Washington D.C.’s Adas Israel, a Conservative synagogue, came out as gay. Married to another Rabbi, Batya, with three children, Rabbi Steinlauf wrote a moving and deeply personal and courageous letter (see below) to members of his congregation. He is the first pulpit conservative to come out, and he is being supported by the president of the congregation.

Steinlauf has been at Adas for six years, and in that time has definitely led the temple in a more progressive direction. He has been in favor of same-sex marriage and interfaith marriages, and in 2012 officiated at the first same-sex marriage at Adas Israel. He also wrote a piece called “The Queerness of Love: A Jewish case for Same Sex Marriage.”

In his letter, Rabbi Steinlauf writes, “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.”

The question is: How will his congregation respond to this in the future? There are certainly many conversations going on now, inside and outside the synagogue. For one thing, conservatism in the Jewish religion is on the wane. Young people are either migrating toward more Reform temples or toward the much more rigorous Orthodox. This has been a major concern for the Conservatives. How do they preserve tradition while still being relevant?

Rabbi Steinlauf’s letter is test of this congregation, but also of churches and temples and groups of other faiths. It is larger than just this one rabbi and his synagogue. It is a chance to decide the balance between change and tradition, which is always an issue in any religion and for everyone who is pushing the limits of their faith traditions.

Steinlauf’s complete letter to his congregation is below:

Dear Friends,

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.

Sally Quinn
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