LGBTQ individuals can teach at yeshivot and be members of Orthodox synagogues if they are not sexually active, a senior Modern Orthodox Israeli-American rabbi said.
The distinction was included in an in-depth paper that addresses issues regarding the attitudes toward LGBTQ individuals within the Orthodox community, which was written by Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander. Still, it’s being regarded as a historic change in Modern Orthodoxy attitudes toward the LGBTQ community.
Brander serves as president and rosh yeshiva of the Ohr Torah Stone network in Israel. Brander was one of the most senior Modern Orthodox rabbis in the US before making aliyah a few years ago.
Brander explains that the Torah prohibits sexual relations of people of the same sex, but explained that “we must not presume that every man or woman who identifies as gay or lesbian is sexually active or in violation of a biblical prohibition.”
He quoted Rabbi Chaim Rapoport, who wrote extensively about homosexuality in the Orthodox community and who was described by the late UK chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks as “a courageous figure who has written on a difficult subject that many would rather avoid.” He said that Rapoport “reported to me that his extensive experience counseling gay and lesbian individuals and couples has led him to conclude that to avoid transgressing the biblical prohibition, a large portion of gay Orthodox Jewish men refrain from engaging in anal penetration.”
He also quoted recent research that suggests that one large-scale survey of gay and bisexual men found that only around a third of respondents reported having anal penetration during their most recent sexual encounter. “We therefore would be mistaken to presume that sexually active Jewish gay men engage in biblically prohibited behavior.”
He later touches the issue of the rebuke of many in the Orthodox community towards LGBTQ members.
“Some will argue that a strong language of rebuke against gay and lesbian people is necessary to voice our tochaha [rebuke] of queer Jews,” Brander wrote, and said that these Jews “oppose the Torah,” and such people must be “reprimanded.”
According to Brander, the responsibility of Jewish educators and leaders is to “engage with gay and lesbian Jews to work together to determine how each individual can fulfill the dictates and spirit of the Torah as fully as he or she can.”
How Jewish institutions can be more inclusive toward LGBTQ+ members of the community
Brander suggests a number of concrete steps that synagogues, schools, and communal institutions can adopt for “a more inclusive attitude towards LGBTQ Jews.”
In his paper, Brander wrote that conversion therapy “should be recognized as a non-viable option.” He mentioned senior rabbis in the US and in Israel who revoked their support for this type of treatment, such as the Rabbinical Council of America as well as religious-Zionist rabbis such as Yuval Cherlow and Eliezer Melamed. “Empirical evidence, both statistical and anecdotal, has made it abundantly clear that ‘gayness’ can’t be ‘cured,’ and that these attempts at treatment simply lead to depression and life-[threatening].”
Another “solution” that a few religious-Zionist rabbis have suggested regarding homosexuality was the marriage of a gay man with a woman – who is aware of his sexual orientation. “If a gay or lesbian person wishes to marry a straight partner, both parties are aware of their different sexual orientations, and a mental health professional and spiritual mentor accompany them throughout their relationship to support them through the challenges they will inevitably face, such a marriage has the potential to provide the couple with happiness and a healthy, stable family life,” he wrote and emphasized that “no amount of love for one’s spouse will change the other’s sexual orientation.” Brander’s opinion is to support this type of decision but not to encourage it.
BRANDER SUGGESTS a number of concrete steps that synagogues, schools, and communal institutions can adopt for “a more inclusive attitude towards LGBTQ Jews.”
Practically, Brander said that gay men should be included in a minyan just as Sabbath-nonobservant Jews are welcomed.
In addition, “synagogue membership should be available to a gay or lesbian person or couple,” he wrote. Brander explained that since Halacha cannot sanction same-sex marriages, he would suggest that synagogues that have gay and lesbian attendees accept them as single members or change the synagogue membership fee structure from family membership to household membership.
Brander also touched topics that have probably never been discussed publicly with a halachic aspect to them such as circumcision ceremonies and baby-naming ceremonies of LGBTQ parents in Orthodox synagogues. “Synagogues should not hesitate to host a brit or baby-naming for the child of a same-sex couple,” he wrote. “Rather than embarrassing and further distancing the couple from the Jewish community and Jewish life, synagogues should embrace this opportunity to make the couple feel welcome.” He added that “such religious events can serve as an opportunity to ease tensions and reunify estranged family members who have struggled to respond to the life choices of their loved ones.”
Brander is very clear on these issues and doesn’t leave any room for doubt. He holds the same certainly for the bar and bat mitzvah celebrations of children of gay and lesbian parents. “Becoming a full-fledged member of the covenantal community is in no way contingent on one’s sexual orientation and certainly not that of one’s parent or parents.”
A complication that the average Orthodox Jew would never think of until he or she had to deal with it is the issue of communal announcements, whether in a newsletter or in public statements in the sanctuary. “To publicly announce and thereby celebrate the engagement or marriage of a same-sex couple from the pulpit seems to stand beyond the pale of what would be permissible for halachic communities,” Brander wrote. “Conversations with pulpit rabbis across North America indicate that these questions are being asked more and more often.
As a guiding principle, I would offer for consideration that anything short of celebrating the engagement or wedding of a same-sex couple should be deemed possible and worthy of consideration,” Brander explained.
He also dove into the issue of end-of-life issues such as burial.
A chevra kadisha [burial society] has the responsibility to bury a gay man or lesbian woman with the same expeditious concern for the holiness of the deceased as they would for any man or woman,” he stated. “Furthermore, rabbis should not hesitate to officiate at funerals or shiva houses, even if the departed or any of the mourners is LGBTQ.”
Brander quoted head of the Har Etzion Yeshiva Rabbi Yaakov Medan saying that homosexual men who are members of the religious community – and not sexually active – can become teachers and educators in Orthodox day schools and yeshivot. “I see no justification for precluding them from engaging in any part of religious life, be that in reading from the Torah, leading prayer services, or teaching Torah to the community,” he quoted Medan. He added that the fact that recent estimates suggest that around 5.6% of the US population is LGBTQ – should cause the approach to be different since those estimates are also “true of the student bodies of our schools as well.”
He added that “if a school hires a single gay or lesbian person who fits Rabbi Medan’s description as a religious studies teacher, the school should have a clear policy from the outset regarding the appropriate steps in the event the teacher formalizes a sexual relationship with a gay/lesbian partner.”
In Brander’s halachicly-based opinion, there is no reason not to accept children of same-sex couples. He suggested that schools need to think through and create the appropriate protocols, “as they have for other situations, to make it easier for children of gay and lesbian parents to fully integrate into their schools.”
An issue that Brander points at, based on his many conversations with parents and educators is that children of gay and lesbian families may not get invited to birthday parties, bar or bat mitzvah events, or Shabbat playdates and sleepovers. “Meaningful education regarding tolerance and understanding, along with clear guidelines, can help avoid unintentional hurt feelings or misunderstood expectations,” he wrote, and explained that these policies “need to be clearly communicated to the school community.”
BRANDER QUOTED from a paper that was written by UK’s Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis that explained to educators in the British-Jewish community how to deal with issues of LGBTQ students in Jewish day schools. “Schools must also take active steps to prevent bullying and discrimination towards students who are either themselves gay or lesbian or have (a) gay or lesbian parent(s),” Brander wrote and referred to Mirvis’s writings on the issue.
In a conversation with The Jerusalem Post on Thursday, Brander said he has invested many months of work into this paper and that there has never been this type of halachic investment on these issues, whether small or large. But he also said he acknowledges the fact that “some readers of this article, whether themselves queer or their straight allies, will argue that I have not gone far enough in calling for systemic changes to Modern Orthodoxy’s way of life,” he said, adding immediately that “others of a more conservative bent will peremptorily reject what I have written as beholden to a progressive agenda and out of the bounds of Torah. All I can say is that I have made my best efforts to be honest with the reader and with myself. I pray that I have walked the proper line to show commitment to all aspects of Jewish law.”
Brander, who has been dealing with issues of homosexuality in the Orthodox world for years, knows that his paper may cause controversy. “This paper will be a success even if there are dozens of articles against it and of course if there are articles supporting it. This dialogue needs to happen.” Brander shared that he feels a bit of hypocrisy in the Orthodox community, with this regard. “There are so many Jewish institutions with names of people on them [donors] even though they sat in jail for stealing from someone,” Brander concluded. “These same institutions will think twice about someone who is attracted differently than straight people – it just doesn’t make sense.”