Dear Rabbi Daniel and Susan,
Well, last week’s answer to the Ask the Rabbi question about an employee being directed to use a co-worker’s pronoun of choice caused more controversy than just about any previous answer. That isn’t surprising because it touched a nerve.
Any alert Bible-believer is aware that currently there is a strong attempt to marginalize, condemn and, dare we say, destroy traditional faith and its adherents in the United States. As such, people are aware that if a similar dilemma hasn’t accosted them at work yet, down the road it most likely will.
Can we respond to some of the points raised and elaborate on our answer?
Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin
Dear Ask the Rabbi readers,
First of all, we must thank you for sharing your views and interacting with us and your fellow readers in the comments section. We disappointed some of you and pleased others and a few of you accused us of not being clear enough.
We plead guilty to the last charge. As always, we know no more than our Ask the Rabbi questioner tells us. We do not contact the writer personally and conduct a lengthy interview. So, we are always in the dark as to many important aspects of the person’s life. In this case, we have no idea what William’s field of work is, what his position is and what family or other responsibilities he has. We have no idea if he has other work options or not. When you accept employment you surrender a certain independence in return for a pay check. While each of us can make decisions to act on principle no matter the cost, we did feel it would be irresponsible for us to tell William to behave in a way that had a good probability of causing him to lose his job. We can think of questions where that might be our duty—but the point we wanted to get across is that we do not see this as one of those cases.
What might be a harder question? If a doctor or nurse was told that their job was on the line if they did not perform an abortion or participate in an operation mutilating someone who wants to get rid of body parts that identify his or her sex, he or she would have a very serious moral and religious question to ask. If one of William’s female co-workers is told to go on a business trip and share a room with the person who now calls himself a woman despite his DNA showing him to be a man, she would have a very serious moral and religious question to ask. If a teacher is told that he or she needs to teach immoral and anti-Biblical ideas to students, he or she has a serious question to ask. Even in those extreme cases we are phrasing our answer somewhat ambiguously and we’d like to tell you why.
We work within the Jewish system. In that system, complex questions with great ramifications do not get answered en-masse. For example, when our mother was in the hospital in a coma, there were decisions the family had to make. Medicine can do a great deal today, some of which is incredibly life-saving and life-enhancing and some of which is extreme and causes additional problems. We, like other Torah-observant Jewish families in similar situations, worked hand-in-hand with a rabbi who specializes in medical issues. There are only a dozen or so such rabbis in the world today.
Even if friends of ours had gone through what looks to us like an identical situation, we would not have relied on, “Well, this is what they were advised,” to make our own decisions. Each case has its unique and distinct details and needs in-depth analysis. When we were leading a synagogue and someone approached us with a question of the same sort, we “moved up the chain” to get a response from one of these “medical specialist” rabbis. In other words, you cannot find the answer to vital and serious questions by perusing Google or asking even a wise and learned person who is not immersed in that specific area of knowledge. You certainly can’t get the answer in our Ask the Rabbi column. Risking your source of income is a vital and serious issue.
We would like to address some of your specific concerns, especially the question as to whether addressing a person by a name that doesn’t match reality is lying. Those wonderful people who care for Alzheimer’s patients give advice to “embrace the patient’s reality.” If your father with Alzheimer’s asks when his wife will visit and she has been dead for fifteen years, they do not recommend explaining that fact to your father. Rather, they suggest answering something along the lines of, “Mom isn’t able to come now. Why don’t we take a walk in the garden.” If he gets very agitated you could say that Mom might come tomorrow. You aren’t lying to your father, you are meeting him in his state of confusion.
It is not a coincidence that as our world moves defiantly away from a God-centered view, depression, anxiety and confusion are increasing. Meeting individuals with warmth and respect is completely separate from agreeing with their false ideas. It is worlds apart from giving up on the political front and not doing our utmost to keep out of power those who want to bully and terrorize religious individuals. We encourage everyone to contribute to organizations like the Alliance Defending Freedom which works tirelessly to defend Americans who are punished for acting in accord with their traditional Christian and Jewish beliefs. (Of course, we hope you support us at the American Alliance of Jews and Christians as well as we work on strengthening the culture.)
We would add that a lie is defined as something in which someone is misled. If I use a pronoun as instructed by my supervisor, in most cases, there is nobody at my workplace who will say, “Wow, so I guess old Fred really is now Fern.” People’s minds are largely made up on this subject. If this makes you uneasy, by all means quit and find another job with like minded people if you can, but that is different from being required to lose your job.
We did mention in one response to a comment that there are three instances where Jews actually have to be willing to die rather than transgress. There are obviously complexities to each of these instances, but here are the three. If you’re threatened with death unless you publicly denounce your faith in God and worship an idol, we have to stand tall and say, “Pull the trigger.” If we are threatened with death unless we have sex with a married woman, or a man with a man or many other Biblically prohibited sexual relationships, we have to stand tall and say, “Pull the trigger.” If we are threatened with death unless we murder an innocent human being we have to stand tall and say, “Go ahead, pull the trigger.”
If the culture continues moving in the wrong direction, then we will each have to decide when and where to draw a line in the sand. We do think the ensuing discussion to last week’s Ask the Rabbi question highlighted the importance of this fact. While we weren’t able to respond to each issue raised, we hope this makes clearer why we stand by our decision not to tell William that he was under a moral and/or religious obligation to make this his moment.
With gratitude to you all,
Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin