The horrifying stabbings and murder of Shira Banki at the recent Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem are in no way representative of the Orthodox Judaism I live and breathe. Yet, that horrifying incident should give all of us in the Modern Orthodox community pause, and cause, to rethink the stance we take, and the message we send about homosexuality and LGBT Jews. It calls for a fundamental change in the way we interact with these men and women of our community— our children, our siblings, our congregants. We must do it because it is right. And we must do it because the alternative to such a change has become too great to bear.
The Torah provides a blessed path for two Jews with heterosexual attraction who realize that they love each other and want to build a life together. It supports this special bond by setting forth rules about our sexual and relational conduct.
But what path is there for people who aren’t wired for heterosexual relationships? We've come to know that homosexuality is, most often, not a choice. Why would God create some people who can only find sexual fulfillment and companionship in a way that God's Torah prohibits? There are no easy answers. For many, especially our young people, the Torah's prohibition of male same-sex intercourse and its labeling it a toeva (generally translated as "abomination") is exceptionally challenging because it pits the Torah’s values against their modern sensibilities.
But my focus here is not on theological or religious questions, though these are certainly important. Rather, it is on the life issues that directly impact LGBT Jews. Many are in pain; feeling rejected by the Torah they would want to uphold, feeling excluded from the Orthodox community which has, in many ways, conveyed the message that there is no place for them within it.
But it is God, in the Torah, Who recognizes that to be alone in life is unbearable. God says of the human he has created: "Lo tov heyot haadam levado- it is not good for the human to be alone." And he responds by creating Eve. For LGBT Jews, loneliness persists. We need to acknowledge that and do our best to respond to the reality of their pain.
Yet, the Orthodox community, by and large, is not engaging compassionately with these Jews. It is more focused on prohibited acts, the Supreme Court same-sex marriage decision, and the dangerous impact homosexuality is said to have on society. I believe this focus is misguided and imbalanced. We dwell on same-sex prohibitions more than issues of a sexually active single heterosexual population, or immorality in business — also called a toeva in the Torah. (Point of information: though the Torah calls male same-sex intercourse a toeva, Bar Kapparah in Tractate Nedarim tells us the correct translation here is "toeh atah bah– you are going astray with it", greatly neutralizing the implications of "abomination").
Instead of playing the role here as protectors of the Torah (which we must surely do at times), we should be engaging LGBT Jews as the good people they are; we should be working to keep them connected to the Torah instead of taking positions that are driving them away from it.
How can Orthodox institutions (synagogues, schools, camps, youth groups) do better?
Firstly, we must be vigilant about the derogatory, often flippant way we sometimes speak about LGBT Jews. It is insidious and damaging. If we allow it, we become complicit in the harm it causes.
Beyond that, we should commit to getting to know LGBT Jews, to hearing their stories and struggles, to engaging with them as we would with any other Jews in our community.
Orthodox Rabbis must make clear to LGBT Jews, especially to those from traditional backgrounds, that there is no sin in being who they are. Though a rabbi cannot permit what the Torah has forbidden, he can affirm just how difficult this is. We must convey a belief that God, who made us all as we are, can only expect us to do what we are capable of doing. (If asked, we should offer halachic guidance in limiting behaviors. Other than that, what they do in their bedrooms is not for us to know.). And we must help them love themselves, and their families to support them.
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At the same time, we should encourage LGBT Jews to live a vibrant religious life. We should make clear that they (and their spouse/partner if they should have one) have a place in our congregations, that their Jewish children are welcome as any other children are.
Some believe that shunning LGBT Jews might change their behavior (or somehow prevent others from joining their ranks) but the opposite is more likely to be true. Distancing ourselves from our LGBT friends and children drives them, and, ultimately, those who love them, away from God. Is that really what we want?
Five years ago, many of us signed onto a "Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community" (http://statementofprinciplesnya.blogspot.com). That document is just a starting point. There is the “tachlis” work still to be done. For example, the Modern Orthodox community should work closely with organizations that are developing support networks for LGBT Jews and their families. We should rethink institutional policies, from who may receive honors in Shul to school admission for the Jewish children of same-sex parents. We should host opportunities for LGBT Jews to share their stories with us.
Some who argue for compassionate understanding and embrace of LGBT Jews have been accused of condoning that which the Torah condemns. That is not what is being advocated here. We are not encouraging or giving our blessings to people's actions. What we are doing is offering our fellow Jews—our friends, our siblings, our children– blessings towards a good life, as an integral part of our community.
Only then are we living up to what we as Jews and a Jewish community are meant to be.
Chaim Marder is the rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of White Plains, in White Plains, NY