Forward Thinking

The Shaming of Rabbi Barry Starr

By Adena Cohen-Bearak

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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

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