Forward Thinking

The Shaming of Rabbi Barry Starr

By Adena Cohen-Bearak

  • Print
  • Share Share

Getty Images

I don’t know Rabbi Barry Starr personally, but I don’t like how he is being vilified in the media, most recently in an article in The Forward with the lurid headline “When a Good Rabbi Goes Bad.”

We still don’t know all the facts in this case, and we’ve already found this man guilty in the court of public opinion. I also think there is an important aspect to this case that hasn’t been adequately addressed: the issue of shame.

When I taught sex education way back in the mid-1980s, it was popular when talking about sexuality to describe a continuum of sexuality, also known as the Kinsey Scale. If you imagine a horizontal line, with the words “completely heterosexual” on one end and “completely homosexual” on the other, and then imagine gradations in the middle, you get the idea of the continuum.

The notion was to get people to think about sexuality not as black and white — completely straight or completely gay — but as something that had lots of grays. For example, it is possibly to be sexually attracted to people of your own gender yet not “be gay.” It is possible to identify as gay but also have some sexual attraction to people of the opposite sex. There are lots of variations in-between, and it’s all okay and normal.

Now it’s 30 years later, and we’re still dealing with this. And we’re not dealing with it well.

As I see it, the issue with Rabbi Starr isn’t so much what he did sexually (and we don’t really know exactly what he did and with whom). It’s that he was so ashamed of what he did that he was willing to comply with a blackmailer to the tune of half a million dollars.

What if, instead, he was able to admit to his family, his community, and most importantly, to himself that he is “on the continuum” and has some sexual feelings towards men? Is that so terrible?

As every therapist knows, it’s okay and normal to have all kinds of thoughts and feelings. And just because you have thoughts and feelings doesn’t mean you have to act on them. In this case, if the rabbi admitted and accepted those sexual feelings towards men, and had someone to confide in, maybe he could have avoided acting on his feelings, particularly with a stranger, leading to this mess.

Maybe he would have felt compelled to act on those feelings in some way even if he had been more accepting of them. But I’ll bet if there was more acceptance and less shame all around, he wouldn’t be in this terrible predicament.

While some facets of society are much more open today about sexuality, others are not. In the Jewish world in general, I feel, there is still a very set norm of a family consisting of a man and a woman (and some kids). Sure, there are Jewish communities that are welcoming of gay folk (single or coupled), but this is not the norm. There is still a lot of discomfort with sexuality outside the married heterosexual norm.

Repressive notions about sexuality are impacting the Jewish community in other ways, too. I keep reading online about Orthodox rabbis and teachers who are accused of sexually molesting students, and the community tends to rally around the perpetrators rather than the victims. I keep hearing about young Orthodox couples who have been raised in a community that keeps men and women quite separate and uneducated about sexuality, but expects them to have great sex on their wedding night, and is surprised when this doesn’t happen. Again, I feel that shame, along with discomfort and lack of education about sexuality is causing the problem, and is preventing positive solutions.

It’s time to end the shame about sexuality. Judaism is a generally open and positive about sex, and we are only hurting ourselves by closing our eyes to sexual issues and problems in our community. It’s time to end the repression. Too many people are being hurt.

Adena Cohen-Bearak is a freelance writer with a background in health education and public health. She blogs at and a portfolio of her writing can be found at

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: sharon, barry starr, scandal, boston

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels.
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.