This summer, as people elsewhere quibble about the best beach or ice cream, Jerusalemites have been debating homosexuality and LGBT rights.
Jerusalem’s religious community is split. Some applauded Rabbi Yig’al Levinstein of the Eli pre-military academy for calling gays “perverts” and pressured Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat to skip the gay pride rally, while others proudly attended. Orthodox Jerusalemites prayed together before the march began, and some estimated as many as 20 percent to 25 percent of the 25,000 marchers were religious.
My politically incorrect question is: as gays gain acceptance, as gay rights become fundamental civil rights, does any room remain for respectful disagreement? Can this long-rejected minority tolerate those who reject this new status quo? I support gay pride marches. I also respect Mayor Barkat’s freedom not to march without being called “homophobic.”
This year, thousands mobilized to denounce last year’s horrific murder of 16-year-old Shira Banki. The message was clear: despite caricatures of Jerusalem as medieval, the city is open, peaceful, tolerant, and diverse.
Attitudes toward homosexuality have experienced the West’s fastest, sharpest U-turn on a fundamental social issue since the 1960s. In the United States, the politically safe positions have reversed. In 2008, Democrats often opposed gay marriage publicly, while approving it privately; now, Republicans increasingly support gay marriage publicly – or duck – while disapproving privately.
Israel, overall, accepted gays more readily. In the 1960s, Israel’s attorney general and Supreme Court discouraged prosecutions against homosexuality – four decades before the US Supreme Court’s Lawrence v. Texas (2003) outlawed laws against sodomy.
In 1993, as Bill Clinton implemented his awkward “don’t ask, don’t tell policy” regarding gays in the military, the Knesset validated gays serving openly.
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Now, the US allows gay marriage. Gay couples in Israel enjoy many partnership rights, but until Israel allows civil heterosexual marriage, homosexual marriage cannot be legalized.
Inevitably, these dizzying changes regarding gays have failed to convince some, and infuriated others.
The Torah forbids homosexual relations. More broadly, cultural conservatives fear that legitimizing homosexuality furthers Western civilization’s spiritual, moral and cultural chaos, while religious conservatives believe any deviation from the original religious script threatens the entire production.
Still, it’s become cliché to call Tel Aviv the “Middle East’s gay capital.” Less known is that the late great rabbinic authority Rav Aaron Lichtenstein in 2012 approved Orthodoxy’s growing attempts to accept gays in a healthier manner. Rav Lichtenstein condemned “the fears which go beyond the revulsion.”
He wondered why the Jewish community tolerates Shabbat violaters more than gays. And he called homosexuality a “personal” sin, not a “communal” one, like not “giv[ing] enough charity.” These nuances, from someone who didn’t “approve” but learned to be respectful, started building a welcoming platform that Levinstein’s ugliness rejects.
Those who view homosexuality as innate and unchanging – like being black – reject any criticism of the lifestyle. Those who view the Torah as absolutely true and unchanging, reject the lifestyle. Rabbi David Levin-Kruss, a Jerusalem educator, notes that religious moderates who cherish Torah but respect LGBT rights struggle.
Clearly, the discussion needs re-balancing.
Both sides should avoid demonizing judgments like “bigot” and “pervert” – except when outrageous behavior warrants it – and repudiate harassment, bullying, insults and discrimination, let alone violence.
Second, the law of the land is the law. Israel’s representatives, including those in the chief rabbinate and the army rabbinate, must respect the laws prohibiting discrimination – and follow the law’s spirit by showing respect publicly. If they resent the restraint, they will learn that separating church (or synagogue) from the state protects the pure church from the impure state’s compromises and religious deviations.
Rabbi Levin-Kruss urges both sides to be “pragmatic,” understanding that “looking to the long term is a mark of a good revolution.” He says Orthodox Jews “need to make the Halacha as welcoming as they can, adjusting language, attitudes, wherever possible.” In turn, the gay community should accept small victories on the road to greater understanding. “To get a haredi rabbi to stop encouraging gay men to marry women is of much greater value than having nothing to do with the haredi world,” he advises.
Gay rights activists should respect the free thought of those who privilege heterosexual unions. These traditionalists have a right to preach without being called bigots – if they remain civil and substantive.
In short, advocates on each side should treat the other as they wish to be treated.
Before Jerusalem’s Gay Pride march, the Orthodox and egalitarian communities prayed side by side in Liberty Bell Park. The two communities could have demonstrated the mutual magnanimity we need by praying together – and yes, the egalitarians would have had to accept a mechitza separating men and women while praying. An egalitarian Jew can still say mourner’s kaddish with a mechitza, but an Orthodox Jew cannot fulfill that obligation without that separation. In that case, the more liberal community would yield.
Tolerance must be a two-way street – as Natan Sharansky’s Kotel compromise demonstrated. Egalitarians acknowledged the main plaza’s traditional arrangements, accepting traditional gender separation, while the ultra-Orthodox respected the egalitarian prayer space near Robinson’s Arch – until they reneged. If they reopen negotiations, the government should question all assumptions, including the post-1967 gender separation, to force a compromise.
A healthy democracy should protect gay rights while tolerating a principled, not bigoted, debate about sexuality as part of our identity quest. Perhaps both sides can learn from each other while learning to live with one another.The author, a professor of history at McGill University, is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s. An oleh since 2010, his next book will update Arthur Hertzberg’s The Zionist Idea. Follow on Twitter @GilTroy.
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