The times they are A-Changin'

Jewish religious attitudes toward homosexuality are slowly shifting. "You have to just love and help. In the final analysis, that's what judaism is all about."

Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The road toward acceptance of gays in the religious Jewish world has been, and continues to be, long and arduous.
Members of the ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox communities frequently express their objections by pointing out that it’s right there in the Torah, in Leviticus 18:22: “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind; it is an abomination.”
Literalists who go just a couple of chapters on could have a field day, for as it is said (Leviticus 20:13): “And if a man lie with mankind, as with womankind, both of them have committed abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.”
Strong stuff. Except that scholars say there’s no record of anyone having been executed for such an infraction when death was still part of the Jewish legal landscape. More realistically – at least as evidenced in fundamentalist circles today – the punishment, while not deadly, was certainly not benign (Leviticus 18:29): “For whoever shall do any of these abominations, even the souls that do them, shall be cut off from among their people.”
In the US, where attitudes toward gays are relatively advanced, non-fundamentalist religious groups of all faiths have generally followed suit and, in some cases, even led the evolving attitudes. The Reform movement, the largest stream of religiously affiliated Jews in the US, has long espoused a loose interpretation of the Torah’s injunctions against homosexuality, saying they merely prohibit the adaptation of certain customs of other cultures, such as so-called fertility cults. In the 1980s, the movement began to ordain homosexuals and lesbians, with the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the umbrella organization for Reform clergy in North America, affirming their rights a short time later to “be accorded the opportunity to fulfill the sacred vocation that they have chosen.” A decade later, after having supported the right of homosexuals and lesbians to civil unions, the CCAR affirmed their right to unions “through appropriate Jewish ritual,” leaving it up to individual rabbis to decide whether or not to officiate.
The US Conservative movement has been more circumspect. Four years ago, it began allowing its rabbis to choose among three major responsa on the subject. These run the gamut from a complete prohibition on homosexuality to a stand that, while forbidding male-male anal intercourse and religious marriage for gays, allows gay ordination and favors civil unions.
Even in the modern Orthodox world, the hills and curves in the road toward acceptance of homosexuals – if not of homosexuality – are being leveled and straightened, if only a bit.
Last December, at an open forum at New York’s Yeshiva University, current and former gay students related difficulties they face in the Orthodox world. The event was something of a watershed – made clear by the fact that it ignited an immediate firestorm of recriminations from numerous quarters that eventually forced YU’s president and the dean of its rabbinical school to issue a statement on what they viewed as Judaism’s “absolute prohibition of homosexual relationships.”
Some students complained that the forum had not addressed homosexual behaviors or the attitudes of halakha toward homosexuality, but merely the oppressive atmosphere that Orthodox gays are often forced to confront.
Yet, the uproar continued as revered rabbis and teachers weighed in on websites, in newspapers and magazines, and even in YU lecture halls to lambaste the forum’s organizers and speakers, leading to even more healthy – and respectful – debate.
In the ultra-Orthodox world, there’s been little movement toward the acceptance of homosexuals.
“Look how central God’s exhortation is, that we should be fruitful and multiply,” Dr.
Yaakov Fogelman, an Orthodox writer on Jewish topics, a former student of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and editor of the newsletter “A Jerusalem Jewish Voice,” tells The Jerusalem Report. “It’s one of the main things He asks of us.”
Beyond the obligation of propagation, there’s also a matter of visibility. “There are community leaders,” Fogelman continues, “especially among the haredim, who fear the influence a homosexual will have on others, and who therefore prefer to banish them not only from Torah readings and synagogues, but from the community and even their family homes.”
DESPITE A HIGH-PROFILE AND as yet unsolved shooting attack last summer that left two dead at a dropin center for homosexuals, Israel has the most liberal approach to homosexuals and lesbians in the Middle East. Indeed, openly gay individuals serve in the Knesset and the army, where prohibitions against anti-gay discrimination are much more progressive than the “don’t ask-don’t tell” norm in the American military.
In fact, following a lengthy litigation process, a civilian panel some 20 years ago ruled that the partner of an openly gay colonel who had died of natural causes be granted the same survivor’s rights as an IDF spouse and, since then, gays have successfully hitched their wagon to civil laws that recognize common-law marriages and the resulting offspring, and to other progressive legal and social trends.
For the Israeli branches of Conservative and Reform Judaism, policies toward gays have been a bit slower to evolve than they have in the US. The Masorti movement has sided with the strictest approach among the three adopted by the Conservative movement – a complete prohibition on homosexuality – while the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism has more or less followed the North American Reform movement, although it has allowed its rabbis to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies – which, like all non- Orthodox wedding ceremonies, are not recognized by the state – at their discretion only since April.
YET THERE IS MOVEMENT, albeit tentative, even in the modern- Orthodox world. This past July, a long list of modern-Orthodox rabbis and Jewish educators, most of them from Israel and the US, and many of them highly regarded – including Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York City, and Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of Efrat, a settlement just south of Jerusalem – released a statement of principles on homosexuality.
“Every Jew is obligated to fulfill the entire range of mitzvot between person and person in relation to persons who are homosexual or have feelings of same-sex attraction,” the statement reads. “Embarrassing, harassing or demeaning someone with a homosexual orientation or same-sex attraction is a violation of Torah prohibitions that embody the deepest values of Judaism.”
In addition, the signatories declared that they are “opposed on ethical and moral grounds to both the ‘outing’ of individuals who want to remain private and to coercing those who desire to be open about their orientation to keep it hidden.” They also called on synagogues and schools to welcome homosexuals, saying that “with regard to gender and lineage, they should participate and count ritually, be eligible for ritual synagogue honors, and generally be treated in the same fashion and under the same halakhic framework as any other member…” Daniel Jonas, 28, is living proof that there have been attitudinal changes toward gays in Israel’s national religious and modern Orthodox camps. He’s a board member of Havruta, a support group for Orthodox gays, both in the closet and out, whose website ( is said to be the first of its kind in Israel.
“I’m still Orthodox,” the tall, slim and dark-haired Jerusalemite, who wears a knitted kippa and, in the Jerusalem summer heat, dresses like most young national religious males – that is to say in shorts, T-shirt and sandals – tells The Report. “I have not felt any hostility from anyone in my Orthodox community. No one ever told me I could no longer read from the Torah.”
Jonas, who is studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem toward his master’s degree in the history of Jewish people, says he discovered his sexual orientation “gradually,” starting when he was about 10.
“Others at school would call me a ‘homo,’” he recalls, using the Hebrew term that, over the years, has become less a pejorative and more the accepted word for gay. “I was offended not because I knew what it meant, but because I knew it was a slur. In the eighth grade, I had my first sexual contact with a boy. At that point, I knew there was something going on.”
Born and raised in the national religious community in Jerusalem’s Talpiot neighborhood, Jonas studied in state religious schools where the atmosphere, while not homophobic, could not exactly be considered sympathetic. It was not until he was in the Scouts movement, just after this first homosexual experience, that he found someone he could open up to.
“I spoke with my scout leader,” he relates. “I went to him because I had to speak with someone. He was an exceptional person and I felt I could trust him, that he’d be there for me. I wasn’t disappointed.”
His scout leader suggested that he talk to God.
“If there is anyone I can speak with and say everything to, it’s God. He’s non-judgmental.
I was afraid of people’s reactions. I knew that with Him, I wouldn’t get any hurtful remarks,” he says with a chuckle.
Despite these conversations, “I had girlfriends,” he says, “and I continued to pursue women, hoping that whatever was ‘going on’ would disappear.”
When it came time to serve in the army, Jonas chose hesder, a program that combines yeshiva study with military service over a period of four years instead of the usual three.
During this time, when he wasn’t in a tank, he was at the Otniel Yeshiva in the South Hebron hills, where he continued to struggle with his internal tug of war.
“I wrestled with this issue by myself, but also with friends from the hesder, people I felt comfortable with,” he relates. “The replies I got usually reflected the way I posed the issue, which was that I had a ‘problem.’ So my friends would usually tackle it as one.
It helped to talk about it and to know that people cared, but it didn’t solve a thing.”
Did these conversations have some kind of religious spin? “Not on my part,” he responds. “There was no religious side to wishing these feelings would disappear. It was what so many gay people feel simply as part of society. I believe that homosexuals or lesbians, religious or not, who say they prefer being the way they are, are lying.”
All the while, Jonas continued to date women, hoping his homosexual feelings would fade. “This continued until I was 26,” he says. “I had a girlfriend, but I made the acquaintance of a certain man.
I knew right away that I had met my partner, and I broke up with my girlfriend the next day.”
His family was supportive when he disclosed that he was gay. “There was never a negative reaction from anyone in my family. Apparently, my mother knew all along. My father is a highly respected man in the community and at synagogue.
I feared that coming out would mean I could no longer go there with him. Then he said, ‘I thought about this, but I really don’t care.’” While once he felt he could turn only to God, and later only to a few close hesder friends, Jonas says that today, “there are more and more people I can speak with in the religious community. I won’t say they’re all accepting of me, but there’s no doubt that I’ve been blessed with a family and community that’s understanding and supportive – more so even than many people in the secular world.”
Jonas thinks that several issues have helped change attitudes toward homosexuals in the national religious sector. One is the way Israel’s general gay community has raised its profile through active advocacy and interest groups, clubs and special publications, and annual gay pride parades. Another is the way its rights have gained traction through the country’s relatively liberal human-rights laws, and through the army’s laissez-faire attitude toward homosexuals.
In particular, the ongoing saga of Rabbi Moti Elon has drawn attention to homosexuality in the religious community. One of the country’s most iconic national religious educators, several years ago Elon suddenly left a successful career as head of one of Jerusalem’s most prestigious religious academies to be the rabbi of a sleepy northern town. Several months ago, it finally emerged that Elon’s “exile” had been in response to complaints against him by male students of “inappropriate behavior.” The alleged transgressions are generally understood to have been of a sexual nature, and more recently led police to recommend that Elon be indicted.
“I have no doubt the Elon affair has had an effect on attitudes toward gays among the national religious community,” Jonas says.
“It has showed that even rabbis can be like this. It really brought the issue out of the closet.”
Just how far “out of the closet” have things become in the national religious sector? “A few months ago, at a Havruta event, I was amazed to see all the 17- and 18-year-old religious youths who had come out,” he says.
“And I was amazed not only by the sense of satisfaction that I felt, but also by my sense of jealousy [that they did not have to suffer like I did].”
Perhaps key to understanding the growing sense of openness and acceptance of gays among the modern Orthodox lies in understanding human inclinations, which many in the scientific and medical sectors now say are influenced by genetics, and are therefore irreversible.
While not taking a stand on whether this is so – many Orthodox scholars insist it’s not, and that homosexuals can be made to change – one man with his feet in both worlds says it shouldn’t even be a factor.
“The main thing is something I learned from a teacher of mine in the old country,” says Dr. David Mandel, a Canadian-born Orthodox psychiatrist in Jerusalem, where many of his patients come from the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox worlds. “Changing people is not relevant. And we must remember that in Judaism, the Torah prohibits behaviors, not inclinations.”
Indeed, the signatories to the recent Orthodox declaration on attitudes toward gay people asserted that halakha “views all male and female same-sex sexual interactions as prohibited” and “sees heterosexual marriage as the ideal model and sole legitimate outlet for human sexual expression.” But they went on to note the critical difference in their thinking by declaring that “halakha only prohibits homosexual acts; it does not prohibit orientation or feelings of same-sex attraction, and nothing in the Torah devalues the human beings who struggle with them.”
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin has said the focus clearly should be on the individual.
“More and more Orthodox rabbis have come into contact with people who are gay as the situation has become more open,” he has been quoted as saying. “Like everything else, when you don’t know, you tend to demonize and almost dehumanize. When you know, you’ve met the individual, you’ve seen the sincerity of his prayer, you can no longer demonize and dehumanize. You have to just love and help… In the final analysis, that’s what Judaism is all about.”
INTERESTINGLY, MANY BIBLE scholars point out that the injunctions against homosexuality – whether acts or just inclinations – refer solely to males. There’s no direct injunction against lesbianism. However, another verse in Leviticus (18:3) – “Do not follow the ways of Egypt where you once lived, nor of Canaan, where I will be bringing you. Do not follow any of their customs.” has been parsed to cover this as well. According to renowned Medieval commentator Maimonides, these “ways” included same-sex marriage for both males and females.
Bracha Koren, 30, lives with her partner in Tel Aviv, where she works for a large telecommunications firm. She grew up in a haredi family in a mixed religious-secular neighborhood nearby, but now refers to herself simply as Orthodox.
“I’d describe myself as an ‘out-of-thecloset haredi,’ but that’s an oxymoron,” she laughs. “A haredi Jew is one who agrees to the conditions of the haredi world. Living openly as a lesbian is not covered by those conditions.”
When she was about 20 – at a time when many, if not most, haredi women have already undergone a shiddukh (arranged marriage) and been married – Koren fell in love with a woman, also haredi.
“I understood that I didn’t want it any other way,” she tells The Report. “But it wasn’t simple. At first I lived with my partner as ‘roommates.’ There was no one to speak to. Secular lesbians couldn’t help. I had to tell my parents. They reacted with a lot of tears and great sadness. I imagine that to this day they hope ‘time will do its thing.’” While her parents may not have been as understanding as Jonas’s, Koren says that she feels she’s lucky to have the mother and father she does. “My parents are the types who speak about everything. There was a desire to understand what was going on.”
Koren and her partner eventually had a commitment ceremony – “without a rabbi, but with the religious trappings,” she says.
“We don’t go to any particular synagogue [although] there’s a ‘gay-friendly’ modern Orthodox synagogue we attend,” she adds.
“My dress today, as far as I’m concerned, is modest, although my parents wouldn’t think so.”
Though it was still a bit difficult to attend her brother’s recent wedding, where she met with relatives and friends from her former life, she says that her lifestyle didn’t exactly come up in conversation. “Among haredim, people don’t talk about what they don’t want to talk about,” she deadpans.
Ten years after having left the fold with a feeling that she had no one to talk to who’d understand her, Koren is a leading member of Bat Kol, which on its website (www.batkol.
org) describes itself as a “religious lesbian organization… founded to allow women to fulfill both their religious and lesbian identity; to make it possible for women to live in loving relationships, to raise children without deception, but nevertheless stay committed to their religion.”
Unfortunately, she says, many of the women who turn to Bat Kol, which she helped found in 2005, remain in the closet.
“There are many haredi lesbians who simply haven’t come out,” she says. “They remain unmarried. In many cases, people in the community talk about them and even know. But as long as they don’t do anything that’s untoward, they can remain part of the community.”
For these haredi women, as well as for those who have decided to live openly as lesbians, the road is now at least somewhat easier. Having begun with 10 members, Bat Kol now numbers some 150 women, aged 19 to 60-plus. It recently received a grant from ROI, a global initiative founded by American philanthropist Lynn Schusterman to promote diversity and inclusiveness in the Jewish world, and which now has some 500 members from 40 countries.
“They find Bat Kol on the Internet,” Koren says. “They call us. There’s an atmosphere of possibilities. I hope the changes in the attitudes now taking place in the modern-Orthodox world will spread to the haredi world as well.”