Originally published in The Jewish News, 31st January, 2013
Until this week, I was heartened by intelligent voices on homosexuality emerging from the Orthodox community. Rabbi Nati Helfgot initiated a Statement of Principles in 2010, grounded in Halacha, proclaiming “Demeaning someone with a homosexual orientation is a violation of Torah prohibitions that embody the deepest values of Judaism.” An Orthodox school in New York recently allowed a Gay-Straight alliance. At Limmud conference 2012, a British Orthodox Rabbi joined a panel discussing same-sex marriage, even suggesting Orthodox Judaism support civil same-sex partnerships.
Then reactionary views unfortunately still held within the Orthodox community reared their ugly head. Concern was expressed to Rabbi Schochet that Rabbi Lichenstein suggested it’s not Halacha animating people against homosexuality. Rabbi Lichenstein’s point was that if it was a halachic objection, people would be similarly outraged towards those eating shellfish or violating Shabbat. Expressing sympathy with the unease voiced at Rabbi Lichenstein’s possible tolerance, Rabbi Schochet’s shared his disdain “when “that community” starts shouting their agenda”. He argued that the traditional Jewish community giving legitimacy to LGBT people “is akin to having an organisation called the National British Gossipers Association formally recgonised”.
Implicitly, Rabbi Schochet suggests that sexuality is no more worthy of protection or celebration (their agenda!) than behavioural choices like gossiping. Brian Gordon is more explicit: “I have nothing at all against people who define themselves as “gay”…their desire to adopt such a lifestyle…is entirely their affair”. Note the derisive parenthesis in how both refer to gay people.
Some Orthodox people think being gay is a choice and can’t get over it. Not all Orthodox leaders agree. Rabbi Rappaport recgonised in ‘Judaism and Homosexuality: an Authentic Orthodox view’ that homosexuality isn’t a choice. The Statement of Principles acknowledges that “this orientation cannot be changed”.
Brian Gordon maintains “it is vital the traditional and religiously prescribed concept of marriage be robustly protected”. Which concept of marriage is that? One where women are bought and sold as property? If Brian Gordon wants biblical standards applied to relationships, does he believe “…if a wife is physically harmed by someone, compensation is paid to her husband” and a “husband is not only the owner of his wife, he is also the owner of her pregnancy (Ex. 21:22)”? Should we side with Rabbis of the past that legislated “wife beating is occasionally sanctioned if it is for the purpose of chastisement or education” (Naomi Graetz, Domestic Violence in Jewish Law)?
I believe that Rabbi Lichenstein was criticizing the selective attitude of many Orthodox people towards biblical and rabbinic teachings on relationships and marriage. If biblical norms are upheld in regard to homosexuality, but ignored when it comes to other matters of family life, surely the only reasonable explanation is prejudice?
It is often at Limmud that I encounter more enlightened Orthodox views on sexuality. Yet even here there were rumblings that concern me. Hineini: Coming out in a Jewish High School was screened, showcasing one American schoolgirl’s efforts to start a Gay-Straight alliance to combat bullying. This sparked discussion about UK Jewish schools. Although parents and pupils from a range of schools were present, none expressed confidence that UK Jewish secondary schools would support a Gay-Straight alliance. Perhaps this is due to all except one being Orthodox.
This should worry those concerned with pupil welfare. Stonewall’s research shows faith schools have higher levels than the already alarming average of homophobic bullying; Three in five gay pupils who experience homophobic bullying say teachers who witness the bullying never intervene; and over 40% of LGBT pupils have attempted or thought about taking their own life. Despite this, no Jewish secondary school in the UK is proactively addressing homophobia or offering encounters with positive Jewish LGBT role models.
In my view, the biggest challenge to creating safe and supportive environments for all young people, and a more inclusive UK Jewish community, is a lack of courage and informed leadership in some Orthodox institutions, particularly secondary schools. Given the Jewish values expressed in Rabbi Helfgot’s work, I would hope to see Jewish schools leading the fight against homophobia rather than shying away from it, and Orthodox commentators struggling with the tensions of modernity instead of romanticising biblical morality.
The poet Hebrew Mamita, who recently performed at Limmud conference, offers a reminder of the rejection of bigotry, often emanating from Jewish experience of being the other, which Orthodoxy should aspire to: “If you must see me as that blood-sucking jew, see me as that pesky mosquito that bites and sucks the prejudice right out of you”.
This was written in my role as a volunteer with Keshet UK.
Keshet UK is the forum working to champion the inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and questioning people in all areas of Jewish life in the United Kingdom. @keshetUK