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Orthodox leaders must rise to the challenge of LGBTQI Jews

Ralph Genende
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Published: 21 December 2020

Last updated: 4 March 2024

RABBI RALPH GENENDE: It’s time for the Orthodox community to acknowledge reality and confront this formidable challenge with deep compassion

AMERICAN SOCIAL ACTIVIST Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, referring to the issue of LGBTQI Jews who identify themselves as part of the observant Orthodox Jewish community, put it well: “We should listen and learn from God-fearing Yidden crying and tossing and turning as they struggle to get clarity because we are sisters/brothers and can always humbly learn from each other; we must silence from our souls the homophobic forces who shed no tears and hold little empathy in their hearts.”

In these few simple words, Rabbi Shmuly crystallises both the angst of the dati (religious) LGBTQI community and the challenge for the Orthodox Halachic community.

This is not a new issue, but it is one that will not go away. In fact, in a world that has moved to a greater and more comfortable awareness of what it means to be gay, not to mention a heightened sensitivity towards gender diversity, it is a challenge knocking even louder at Orthodoxy’s door.

But is the Orthodox community listening? Has there been any change in this community to match the sea-change in societal understanding and acceptance? Are we listening or silencing the voices of the gay community and especially its religious adherents? Are we paying attention to or ignoring the voices within our own souls?

There will, of course, be many Orthodox leaders in the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) camp who would be angered at the very suggestion that we should respond to changing mores and practices. To be Jewish is, to be sure, about being different. From our earliest beginnings we have proudly asserted our uniqueness.
Is the Orthodox community listening? Has there been any change in this community to match the sea-change in societal understanding and acceptance?

It’s not about superiority but about singularity. A singularity of mission, a people with a purpose. To be a Hebrew, as Abraham was first called, was to be someone who lived on the other side of the tracks.  The rabbis compared the Jewish people to fish because they have the capacity and tendency to swim upstream or against the current.

We were chosen to be messengers of God, to impart a message of the dignity of all human beings, the imperative of justice, the necessity of love and compassion, the meaningfulness of morality and spirituality. In a world where might is stronger than right, and money sweeter than morality, this is often a thankless and sometimes dangerous mission.

It takes courage “to keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you” (Kipling). It takes resilience to be “a lonely man of faith” (Soloveitchik). It takes fortitude to be the “people who live on their own” (Numbers 23:9).

The principles and practices of Judaism sometimes stand alone against popular culture. Tradition does not (and should not) bend to every fad or passing fashion. On the other hand, no civilisation can endure without change; no religion can exist without a dynamic of development.  Judaism has changed enormously during its long history.

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The rabbis acknowledged this when they pictured Moses being placed in a time machine and transported forward to the century and classroom of Rabbi Akiva. Moses is perplexed at the way his Torah is being taught; he hardly recognises it. The message is clear: change is inevitable and can bring progress and positive outcomes. The very concept of Halacha is not about immutability but rather about progress.

The root of the word “Halacha” is holech (walking, moving) - we aren't the frozen chosen. Or to put it bluntly:  Not all change is good but no change is bad.

One of the fundamental challenges today is that of the inclusion of LGBTQI individuals in the Jewish community. One of the hot global debates is same-sex marriage. The tide in Western countries has turned in favour of same-sex unions and marriages.

Orthodox Judaism has always embraced the traditional and biblical-based definition of marriage as that between a man and woman; “male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27). So it is legislated in the codes of Jewish law. It is also legislated that homosexuality is forbidden.

This is unlikely to change, but does this mean that there is no place for the gay individual in Jewish religious life or for the Orthodox gay individual or couple in the traditional community?
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Chief Rabbi of Efrat in Israel: “How can we deny a human being the expression of his physical and psychic being? Is it not cruel to condemn an individual from that which his biological and genetic make-up demand that (s)he do?

It’s easy to say, “It’s against the Torah and that’s it”. It is, however, intellectually dishonest and morally cowardly to avoid the reality that homosexuality is what English rabbi Chaim Rapoport calls “the formidable challenge” for Orthodoxy today.

It’s a fearsome challenge, he asserts, because it brings into question issues of freedom of choice (is homosexuality genetically wired or a matter of choice?) and if some are wired that way, how can a caring God demand they go against their nature?

The overwhelming evidence and consensus suggest that homosexuality is not a choice. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Chief Rabbi of Efrat in Israel, puts it this way: “How can we deny a human being the expression of his physical and psychic being? If there is a problem with the kettle, blame the manufacturer.

“Is it not cruel to condemn an individual from that which his biological and genetic make-up demand that he do? The traditional Jewish response would be that if indeed the individual is acting out of compulsion, he would not be held culpable for his act.” (This is called ones in Halachic literature).

I don’t know why the Torah decreed homosexuality forbidden. But I do know that the reality of the 21st century is there are LGBTQI Jews, there are practising Orthodox Jews living in same-sex relationships and Orthodoxy must confront this with great care and deep compassion.

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We also need to recognise the vulnerability of young individuals, to affirm their right not to be alone, not to be driven to despair and suicide, but to establish loving relationships.

In my shule, the Caulfield Hebrew Congregation, we don’t ask people if they eat the Biblically proscribed “abominable” calamari or cheat on their spouses before we give them an aliyah (call up to the bimah for the reading of the Torah).

I accept that not all my colleagues or congregants will be comfortable with or accept my arguments. Some of them are affronted by the stridency of the wider gay community, by their perceived lack of respect for the Orthodox practices, by their rejection of restraint in displaying their sexuality and what is seen as their dearth of modesty.

I would answer that accepting and including LGBTQI members in our congregations doesn’t mean we have to accept everything they do but it’s no excuse for vilifying them, nor for shaming them, nor for going along with the stereotypical jokes about those who are queer. Even if you believe Halacha precludes acceptance of homosexuality, it shouldn’t remove the need to treat all with respect.
I would answer that accepting and including LGBTQI members in our congregations doesn’t mean we have to accept everything they do but it’s no excuse for vilifying them, nor for shaming them.

There is no place in any Orthodox shule worth its salt to engage in homosexual slurs, to countenance its members who publicly express hateful homophobic opinions. This is exactly what Rabbi Yanklowitz means when he says that we must still the homophobic voices and forces who shed no tears and hold little empathy in their hearts.

This is not the kind of Yiddishkeit we pride ourselves on, this is not the way of the children of Abraham, the inheritors of his legacy of chesed (kindness) and compassion. This is not the way of a Torah community which lives by the Halacha that, “One shall not say to a person words that hurt them or cause them pain” (Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah 338).

This is not our role as messengers of God. This was the reason I invited the celebrated rabbi Steven Greenberg from New York (ostensibly the first Orthodox rabbi to come out) to speak at a Shabbat dinner for young adults at our shule several years ago, a position that was supported by the shule president and board at the time.

The position I am espousing may not reflect that of the Haredi world, and even of the Modern Orthodox establishment. Indeed, the bastion of Modern-Orthodox philosophy, Yeshiva University (YU), remains deeply divided on the issue of acceptance and inclusion of the LGBTIQ community.

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This is manifest, for example, in an article published by the YU Observer magazine in 2019 by Aaron Keller, who holds a Chair of Jewish studies, in which he argues that “in a clash between humanity and Halacha , opt for humanity and have enough faith in Halacha that the problem will be solved”. This generated much debate, including suggestions that Dr Keller be barred from the university for his “anti-Orthodox” sentiments.

It is also a battle being waged in the dati leumi (national religious) world in Israel where several Orthodox rabbis have come out as gay. Many dati leumi rabbis, most prominently Rabbi Benny Lau of Jerusalem, have spoken passionately for the rights of the gay community.

The Orthodox, and controversial Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in New York has led the way in promoting acceptance of gay students, but even they were not prepared to grant semicha (ordination) to a gay student. It was another Orthodox rabbi, Daniel Landes, formerly head of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, who gave the first semicha (ordination) to a gay student, Daniel Atwood, in May 2019.
In the Haredi circles, many of their rabbis, especially the younger ones, are accepting and even welcoming of LGBTQI individuals. This is different from some 20 years ago.

Earlier this year, an Orthodox rabbi, Avram Mlotek, officiated at a ceremony for a same-sex couple, thus joining a small group of US Orthodox rabbis who have said they would officiate at religious wedding ceremonies for gay couples.

It's hard to know if this is a trend but it's certainly ground-breaking. What is clear is that a proportion of the hardliners in the Jewish community are now more constrained in their criticisms, more careful in their opposition.

In the Haredi circles, many of their rabbis, especially the younger ones, are accepting and even welcoming of LGBTQI individuals. This is different from some 20 years ago when the Victorian rabbinical establishment fought fiercely against the inclusion of the gay Aleph group being accepted as an affiliate of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria.

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Chabad Houses often turn a blind eye to those who are obviously gay and many will willingly enter dialogue with gay activists. Most draw the line on acceptance of gay couples and endorsement of a gay lifestyle. This was the most patent in the stand the Rabbinic Council of Victoria took in the referendum on same-sex marriage, which caused me to withdraw from its executive.

Another sign the times are a changing in the Modern Orthodox world is the adoption of UK Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mervis’ ground-breaking document “produced with LGBT+Jews” by some religious schools in the UK and recently, by Yavneh College in Melbourne.

The document, The Wellbeing of LGBT+ Pupils, is  courageous and comprehensive. It addresses the prevention of homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying; it gives direction to a school when a pupil comes out, it talks about providing pastoral support and working with parents.

It is a document grounded in Jewish ethics. It surely poses a challenge to the Chabad schools, if not all religious schools.

Some have argued that the dam walls have already broken and that in a social media and post-corona age we will encounter a quite different approach within the Orthodox establishment towards homosexuality and LGBTQI issues. We are living in a brave new world but our capacity to be brave and principled in this world will depend on our intentionality.

Change for the good, for a more respectful, better, gentler and compassionate society won't happen unless we make it happen. Let's make it happen and let one of those starting points be creating a more caring place in our Orthodox Jewish community for all our diverse members, mindful that every individual is created betzelem Elokim, in the image of God.

Yeshiva University students face uphill battle on campus in planned LGBTQ event (Times of Israel)
Organisers say upcoming panel has received positive reactions from students but a muted and even negative reaction by faculty, with a volunteer reporting that rabbis ripped down flyers

Photo: New York gay pride march (Times of Israel)

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