In recent months there has been a blazing controversy surrounding a transgender pupil in a religious primary school in Givat Shmuel. This culminated in certain parents opening a class in protest at the way the religious education system has handled the matter along with a call for the child in question to be excluded from the school and the head of the Religious Education Administration to resign.
The campaign was initially driven by conservative activist lawyer Roni Sassover joined by MK Michal Woldiger of the Religious Zionist Party. Senior religious Zionist Rabbis Yaakov Ariel and Shmuel Eliyahu joined the campaign by attending the protest class to teach the students and saying that such a student should attend a secular school and not a religious one.
With that case being litigated both in the press and the courts, the religious community and its educational leadership needs to consider an appropriate and nuanced policy response.
This is tangled up with the wider political agenda of the caucuses that comprise The Religious Zionist Party, led by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, promoting an aggressively anti-LGBT and anti-feminist agenda. The religious Zionist community however has a much more open stance on the LGBT issue as was seen in a new poll carried out by Panels Politics for The Institute for Jewish and Zionist Research showing that the mainstream of the religious community is quite open to accepting LGBT people in the synagogue, community and their schools.
Moreover, this has a strong basis within a rabbinic and educational tradition that has developed over the last number of years. Instead of seeing the LGBT community as a progressive threat to Jewish identity, when based on compassion and all humanity being in the image of God, Jewish law can generate a completely different stance.
Rabbinic response to LGBT hate crimes
If we go back fourteen years we will find one of the first frontline rabbis to tackle the issue. In a moment of crisis, the double murder carried out at the LGBT Bar-Noar center in Tel Aviv, the mashgiach ruchani (lit: spiritual leader) of Yeshiva University, Rabbi Yosef Blau took a moral stand joining the JQY Tehillim Rally in New York. In 2016, Rabbi Ari Segal responded by addressing the high school he led in the aftermath of the Orlando LGBT hate crime.
In both cases, Blau and Segal saw this as an opportunity to reflect on our response as Jews, but also to consider how Torah observant Jews need to use those values to move from tolerance to more of an embracing stance. Segal went so far as to say “The reconciliation of the Torah’s discussion of homosexuality represents the single most formidable religious challenge for our young people today.”
Humility in judging others
In 2015, Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, a leading religious Zionist posek (determiner of Halacha), dedicated a column to the issue in the B’Sheva newspaper. Rabbi Melamed was clear to distinguish between any sinful acts and the need to find a place for everyone in the community, and this on the basis that the sin itself is not an act of religious defiance. In a later interview in conservative religious magazine Olam Katan, he stressed the need for humility in order not to judge others in a situation we cannot possibly imagine who we would respond to, having never experienced anything similar.
The chief rabbi, LGBT and religious schools
A key contributor to this conversation is British Chief Rabbi Sir Ephraim Mirvis. To date, he is the most senior Orthodox rabbi to have considered the communal question in a serious fashion. In 2018, and after a long consultation with KeshetUK, the UK’s leading Jewish LGBT organization working across the entire Jewish spectrum on education and inclusion, Rabbi Mirvis published a guide for religious schools on best practice with respect to the well-being for their LGBT pupils.
Simply titled “The Wellbeing of LGBT+ Pupils,” the paper set out, using strictly Jewish terminology and values, how this best be achieved. The chief rabbi’s intervention is important as the first practical guide for educators, rather than a general statement in favor of toleration or acceptance. In addition, he makes clear that his partners “motivation has been the well-being of young Jews” in contrast to the oft repeated trope that LGBT organizations are engaged with the normalization of same-sex attractions with a nefarious agenda. What is important for Mirvis is that we “see the humanity in others and truly care about one another.”
Finding a place for everyone in our communities
The latest rabbinic figure to contribute to this discussion is Rabbi Yoni Rosensweig. A community rabbi in Beit Shemesh, is the author of a groundbreaking book on Halacha and mental health. He captured the complexity in a recent appearance on Rabbi Scott Kahn’s The Orthodox Conundrum podcast in an episode titled “LGBTQ+, Jewish Law, and Compassion.” Rosensweig makes many salient points that should help not just rabbis consider how religious communities might build more compassionate relations with their LGBT members, but actually how we as community members should consider the issue.
Rosensweig brings into view the added aspect of compassion required because of the phenomenon of higher mental health risk for religious LGBT people, arising from the inherent dissonance between their desire to be religiously faithful, at the same time as coping with their sexual identity; all this within an environment still largely unequipped or sometimes too hostile to relate to them with compassion.
Using Torah language to belittle another Jew can never be justified in Rosensweig’s opinion and we are often too hasty to project our personal views about homosexuality onto the biblical text. Having the leader of The Religious Zionist Party acclaiming himself as “proud homophobe” surely doesn’t help.
Ultimately, this is not purely a halachic question, but a meta-communal question. None of the rabbis quoted here, nor indeed even the most open and liberal of Orthodox rabbis will take a stance denying the Torah prohibition itself.
What unites them is the idea that the Jewish community has an obligation to respect the divine humanity of each community member, without condoning acts that are outside Halacha. These rabbis are important community leaders and educators who should give communities everywhere the confidence to seek out their LGBT members and engage in open and compassionate dialogue, ensuring they feel at home within our religious communities.
The writer is a founding partner of Goldrock Capital and founder of The Institute for Jewish and Zionist Research. He is a businessman, social activist and a former cochairman of The Coalition for Haredi Employment, Gesher and World Bnei Akiva.