Unorthodox solutions

A conference discusses to what extent Halacha can extend a hand to religious homosexuals who do not want to leave Orthodoxy.

Torah 521 (photo credit: Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT)
Torah 521
(photo credit: Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT)
On Monday evening, the main hall at the Yad Ben-Zvi Institute was packed. Some people even had to stand at the entrance, trying to hear every word uttered by the members of the panel: Rabbi Arale Harel from Shiloh, who tried to sound supportive despite his total commitment to Halacha, and three members of the gay religious community, Yakir Englander, Yehoshua Gortler and Bat-Ami Neumayer from Bat-Kol, the religious lesbians’ organization. For the organizers of the event – the Hillel association at the Hebrew University – this was quite an achievement.
The evening, within the framework of Hillel’s Jewish Identity Encounters, was part of this year’s theme – the link between Judaism and sexuality.
“This week’s meeting tried to address the specific difficulties the Orthodox community has towards homosexuality, though everyone knows this is something no one can ignore anymore,” explained Kobi Lancri, one of the organizers.
The main issue was to what extent Halacha can extend a hand to religious homosexuals who do not want to leave the Orthodox faith and way of life, questions like who has the right to be invited to read the Torah in the synagogue on Shabbat, who decides whom to accept at the synagogue and whom to reject, and the family’s and community’s acceptance or rejection of homosexuals. But above all, the issue in question was the famous “conversion therapy,” aimed at changing, through psychological treatment, the inclination toward homosexuality, a therapy that is considered unethical in Western countries but held in high regard by many rabbis, especially in the Religious Zionist stream.
The three representatives of the gay community on the panel talked about the pain, the suffering – and even the suicides – of homosexuals undergoing these treatments. On the other hand, Harel, until recently head of the Shiloh Hesder Yeshiva, said that while not all homosexuals could benefit from it, there have been many cases where it did succeed and brought relief. Harel didn’t try to be “nice,” as a young man in the audience commented, saying that “He, at least, doesn’t hate us or feel disgust.
On the contrary, he understands our pain, but he wouldn’t go out of his way to help us, either.”
The members of the gay community on the panel and in the audience were mainly part of the Hevruta organization, the first and largest organization established to help and support homosexuals from the modern Orthodox community, mostly graduates of hesder yeshivot.
“My main argument is with God, who made me like I am but, at the same time, completely forbids my nature,” said Neumayer almost in tears, and was immediately applauded by the audience.
Another woman in the audience asked Harel, “Why are men who openly cheat on their wives not prohibited from being called up to the Torah in the synagogue, but two gay man who live as a couple but do not commit any forbidden act are not accepted by the same community?” The answer provided by Harel was that it cannot always be proven that a husband is cheating, “while two men living as a couple are obviously transgressing one of the strongest interdictions of Halacha.”
There was on one issue, however, on which all the participants agreed: Something has changed in society’s attitude, even in the Orthodox community, and hatred, disgust or simply ignoring the presence and the needs of the gay religious community is not acceptable anymore.