A heartfelt Orthodox effort to grapple with homosexuality

This week, Orthodox rabbis, teachers, women, signed "statement of principles” outlining an open, accepting approach to homosexuals who want to maintain ties with community, family and friends.

Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Homosexuality has become the latest contentious issue straining the unity of Orthodox Judaism. This week, about 100 moderate Orthodox rabbis and teachers, including many women, from North America and Israel signed a “statement of principles” outlining an open, accepting approach to homosexuals who want to maintain ties with their Orthodox community, family and friends. Publication of the document coincided with Jerusalem’s annual Gay Pride Parade, which took place Thursday. It also coincides with the one-year anniversary of the shooting at the “Bar No’ar” gay community youth center in Tel Aviv, which resulted in two casualties and whose culprit has yet to be caught.
The document, a product of months of deliberations, is full of the tensions and nuances inherent in any attempt to combine liberalism, openness and sensitivity with a commitment to tradition and religious strictures. The rabbis and educators differentiate, for instance, between prohibited male homosexual sexual relations on one hand, and the gay man’s or woman’s uncontrollable sexual attraction, which is not specifically proscribed or disparaged by the Torah. In another example, the rabbis call on Orthodox communities to embrace the children of homosexual couples, while rejecting the legitimacy of same-sex unions. This is obviously an honest and heartfelt attempt to grapple with the reality of homosexuality.
Some of the principles seem self-evident and hardly in need of mentioning. The first principle, for instance, insists that homosexuals, like any other human beings, were created in the image of God and should, therefore, be respected.
Yet, sadly, in many Orthodox circles, this moral axiom is far from obvious. A case in point was haredi Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem Yitzhak Pindrus’s odious request to the capital’s police force to hold a “donkey parade” alongside Thursday’s Gay Pride route to express what Pindrus called the “bestial” nature of homosexuality. As befits a healthy democracy, which probably would not exist if men like Pindrus had their way, haredi anti-gay demonstrators were offered the compromise of carrying cardboard cut-outs of donkeys – which was accepted. Komimiyut, a religious Zionist settler movement, organized its own “beast parade” several years ago. And Shas chairman Eli Yishai has called homosexuals “sick people.”
A WIDE divide separates Yishai, Pindrus and other reactionary representatives of Orthodoxy from signatories of the “statement of principles” such as Israeli rabbis Benny Lau and Yuval Cherlow and American rabbis Haskel Lookstein and Avi Weiss.
Besides the issue of homosexuality, these two “camps” in Orthodoxy differ on everything from conversion, to the role of women, to how to cope with the aguna problem – the plight of women who are unable to remarry due to the intransigence of a husband who refuses to give a get.
In each case, the moderates have been willing to make adjustments to accommodate modernity. Liberal-minded Orthodox rabbis in Israel have taken into consideration the mitigating effect that the creation of a Jewish state with a Jewish majority has on conversions performed in Israel, while their American counterparts have heeded the dangers of assimilation. These moderates have noted the radical changes in women’s roles as doctors, lawyers, judges and other key leadership roles and have realized that it no longer makes sense to block them from Torah scholarship or even from rabbinic ordination. And they have been more sensitive to agunot.
Conspicuous in their absence are those “mainstream” rabbinic organizations – Tzohar in Israel and the Rabbinic Council of America – that have chosen not to back the statement of principles, though individual members of both organizations have signed on.
To be fair, hundreds of rabbis probably identify with the document’s spirit but did not sign for various reasons, including a desire to maintain a semblance of unity among Orthodox Jews. But sometimes one must choose sides. And the call to sign the statement of principles is one of those moments.
Refraining from doing so is a concession to extremism. More importantly, it is an injustice to those homosexuals who struggle to retain their faith amid adversity, and to their families, who grapple with the social stigmas of their being gay and Orthodox.