Dear Editor,

I can understand why many of your readers may feel uncomfortable with “drag queen story-time” events, such as the one recently hosted at Café Alma. I also acknowledge the letter by the Cincinnati Beis Din stating their disapproval of the letter written by the Café Alma Team explaining their decision to host this event.

However, I feel compelled to respond to a letter printed in your June 29th newspaper issue. The three issues which I wish to address in this letter are (1) the unjustified personal insult to the owners of Café Alma, (2) a profound misrepresentation of Jewish Law and Torah, and (3) false claims about drag and queer culture being dangerous to children, noting that such claims actually pose a danger to LGBTQ people in our society.

(1) The owners of Café Alma, Lainey and Yair Richler, actually do follow all of the Torah’s commandments according to the Jewish Law, the halakha. They do not “pick and choose,” as alleged by the aforementioned letter. This includes affiliation with an Orthodox congregation, regular prayer and Torah study, the laws of kashrut, generous giving of charity, observance of the Sabbath, honesty in business matters, kindness and respect in their personal relationships with others, and the ritual laws which govern the private conduct of family life. They also both served in the Israeli Defense Forces, Yair because he was drafted and Lainy because she volunteered for service as a patriotic proud Jew. Unlike people who just make provocative claims by writing incendiary letters, the Richlers really “walk the walk” as committed and devout Jews. Therefore, I must object, categorically, to the slanderous mischaracterization perpetrated in this defamatory letter to your paper. Even if one strongly disagrees with their decision to host this event, this is a matter of disagreement but not a matter of inadequate commitment. Their commitment and loyalty to Judaism is beyond reproach.

(2) A profound misunderstanding of Jewish Law and Torah values can be inferred from this letter, and I want to clarify this important issue. Most Orthodox Jews understand that living in a pluralistic and tolerant society has been good for traditional Judaism. If we want our government to allow us to regulate our own rules of marriage and divorce, then it is highly unwise to support legislation which infringes on the marital rights of others. This is why the majority of Orthodox Jews support abortion rights, gay marriage, and many other civil liberties in American Law. Whether we are required to protest against or vote against legislation in a manner that imposes our religious beliefs on the surrounding society is a complex matter of Jewish Law, as well as a nuanced matter of political judgment and communal leadership. The areas of Jewish Law which govern how we should relate to and interact with a surrounding society which does not subscribe to our religious beliefs are referred to in the traditional halakhic literature as lifnei iver, messayeya, and tochacha. In the vast majority of situations in a liberal society, Orthodox Jews are simply not required to (and may even be prohibited from) impose their religious beliefs on others. This is precisely how Talmudic Judaism has flourished in diverse societies for the last 1,500 years, and why our religious leadership has always sought to cultivate amicable relationships with the leadership of the societies that we have lived in as a vulnerable religious minority. Let me point out that this included idolatrous empires (Persia and Rome), Christian and Muslim theocracies, liberal democracies, and even fascist dictatorships. If the Talmudic sages who lived under Rome and Persia were not moved to protest against actual sacrifices to idols, then there is a very strong argument which asserts that it is unwise or even forbidden to protest against drag shows or LGBTQ+ pride events in our society. We are living in an age of polarization unseen in the United States perhaps since the Civil War era. Violence and hatred against LGBTQ people is on the rise, as is antisemitism. The very same groups who hate LGBTQ people and seek to limit their freedoms also hate Jews. I can accept the Torah’s prohibition against homosexuality, and also simultaneously advocate for the legal protections, civil rights, and safety of LGBTQ+ people. I can observe the sanctity of Jewish religious marriage, and also advocate for legislation which supports gay marriage. Advocating for LGBTQ+ people to be able to fully enjoy the same benefits of our society and cis-gender and heterosexual people, and supporting their need for pride and acceptance, is not a betrayal of Torah values. It is a recognition that we, as a vulnerable, minority, religious and ethnic community, need to support the safety and well-being of all vulnerable communities in our society. This is not only just and fair, but it is for our own self-interests as Jews.

(3) It is simply not true, as alleged in the same letter, that exposure to people who cross-dress is dangerous for children. What is uncomfortable for some adults is not necessarily dangerous for children. As an expert mental health professional who has treated individuals with sexual and gender identity disorders, I can say with full professional confidence that there is absolutely no evidence or rational basis to suspect children are at risk due to being read stories by men dressed as women. If you don’t want this for your own children, then by all means stay away. But there is no reason to worry that the parents who bring their children to such an event are harming them. Yet, in order to stir up more hatred against LGBTQ+ people, some right-wing political activists have advanced false accusations that a high percentage of gay and trans people groom children in order to victimize them sexually. In addition to the fact that this is a demonstrably false claim, this is a dangerous lie which does, in fact, provoke violence against queer and trans people. As stated above, violence and hatred against queer and trans people is often perpetrated by the same bigots who hate and seek to harm us, as Jews. Yet, of all possible issues to object to on the basis of our community’s religious beliefs, why do LGBTQ+ identity and pride seem to draw so much ire? If you think about how many Jewish Institutions transgress so many other areas of Jewish law, it should become abundantly clear that zeroing in only on gay and trans issues is, itself, a good illustration of “picking and choosing” from the commandments.

I do not seek to persuade anyone about the propriety of drag queen story-time events or change their political affiliations. But what I do hope I can persuade people is that there is good reason for religious Jews to help other vulnerable minority groups thrive in our society, including LGBTQ+ people, regardless of whether their behavior or identities are congruent with our personal religious values and teachings.  

Andrew B. Klafter, MD

Cincinnati, OH