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Being different, being gay in an Orthodox world

11/05/17 15:07:43


I have said it before and I will say it again: To be Jewish is to be different. From our earliest beginnings we have proudly asserted our uniqueness. It’s not about superiority but about singularity. A singularity of mission, a people with a purpose. To be anעברי  or Hebrew, as Abraham was first called, was to be someone who lived on the other side of the tracks. The word Hebrew has its roots in the word “trans” as in Transjordan. And the rabbis compared the Jewish people to fish because they have the capacity and tendency to swim upstream or against the current.

We were chosen to be messengers of God, to impart a message of the dignity of all human beings, the imperative of justice, the necessity of love and compassion, the meaningfulness of morality and spirituality. In a world where might is stronger than right and money sweeter than morality this is often a thankless and sometimes even dangerous mission.

It takes courage “to keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you” (Kipling). It takes resilience to be “a lonely man of faith” (Soloveitchik). It takes fortitude to be the “people who live on their own” (Numbers 23:9)

The principles and practises of Judaism sometimes stand alone against popular culture. Tradition doesn’t (and shouldn’t) bend to every fad or passing fashion. On the other hand no civilisation can endure without change; no religion can exist without a dynamic of development. Judaism has changed enormously during its long history. The rabbis acknowledged this when they pictured Moses being placed in a time machine and transported forward to the century and class of Rabbi Akiva. Moses is perplexed at the way his Torah is being taught; he hardly recognises it. The message is clear: change is inevitable and can bring progress and positive outcomes. Putting it crudely, not all change is good but no change whatsoever is bad.

One of the fundamental challenges today is that of the inclusion of GLBT individuals in the Jewish community. One of the hot global debates is that of allowing and legislating for same-sex marriage. It remains one of the dominant social issues in Australia today. The tide in Western (as opposed to Middle Eastern and African) countries has turned in favour of same-sex unions and marriages.

Orthodox Judaism has always embraced the traditional and Biblically-based definition of marriage as that between a man and woman; “male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27). So it is legislated in every Code of Jewish law. It’s also legislated that homosexuality is forbidden. This is not going to change but does this mean that there is no place for the gay individual in Jewish life or for the Orthodox gay individual or couple in the Orthodox community?

It’s easy to say – “It’s against the Bible and Judaism, that’s it.” It’s a lot harder to say that to a sincere gay individual, to your son who has come out or to your sister who is living in a gay relationship. It’s intellectually dishonest and morally cowardly to avoid the reality that homosexuality is what Rabbi Chaim Rappaport calls “the formidable challenge” for Orthodoxy today. It’s a fearsome challenge, he asserts because it brings into question issues of freedom of choice (is homosexuality genetically wired or a matter of conscious choice) and if some are wired that way how can a caring God demand they go against their nature?

The overwhelming evidence and consensus suggests that homosexuality is not a choice. I for one, agree with a lot of (if not most) gay people who contend that they wouldn’t willingly choose to swim against the tide of heterosexuality, to be different, to carry a double burden of Jewishness and gayness. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin puts it this way: “How can we deny a human being the expression of his physical and psychic being? If there is a problem with the kettle, blame the manufacturer. Is it not cruel to condemn an individual from that which his biological and genetic make-up demand that he do? The traditional Jewish response would be that if indeed the individual is acting out of compulsion (“ones” אונס) he would not be held culpable for his act.”

I don’t know why God created us differently and why the Torah decreed homosexuality forbidden. But I do know that the reality of the 21st century is that there are GLBT Jews, that there are practising Orthodox Jews living in same-sex relationships and that Orthodoxy has to confront this with great care and deep compassion.

We also need to recognise the vulnerability of young individuals, to affirm their right not to be alone                             לא טוב היות אדם לבדו, not to be driven to despair and suicide, but to establish loving relationships. I do know that Orthodox Jews don’t stone sinners even if they are desecrating Shabbat; that the overwhelming majority of Orthodox and certainly modern Orthodox Jews aren’t longing for a theocratic Jewish State where they can execute homosexuals and adulterers. In our shule we don’t ask people if they eat the “abominable” calamari before we give them an Aliyah.

I would rather err on the side of compassion than be a religious warrior without compunction. I will leave it to God to judge who is right: the one who respects and reaches out with love and thoughtfulness to those who are GLBT even if having to reject their right to a same-sex marriage or union; or the one who rejects those who are gay and fails to appreciate their yearning for their relationship to be recognised.

It is for this reason we’ve invited the first openly Orthodox gay rabbi, Rabbi Steven Greenberg to address our young inkr572 Shabbat dinner on 16 June. It doesn’t mean I or the board endorse all of his views (and I will be there to present alternative approaches). We’ve invited Rabbi Greenberg because the issue itself should not be hidden in the Orthodox closet. Rabi Benny Lau who has been an outspoken advocate for those who are gay, has said “a closet is death”. We’ve invited Steven not only to air the issue but to give support to the gay kids in our community, to help them feel they are validated even if we can’t necessarily approve of all that they do. They’re our kids, they’re part of our community and we will do all in our power to help them. It’s our responsibility to have the difficult conversation to engage with it and our kids in as caring and thoughtful a way we can. If Steven Greenberg stops just one young gay Jew from contemplating suicide his visit is worth the controversy and dissension.

Traditional Judaism will continue to dare to be different, to assert its unique message of doing what is right and just, spreading kindness and caring in a cold relativistic world. It will also continue to confront the challenges of the contemporary world, to seek a way of travelling between being understanding and exercising restraint between, justice and mercy. We will also hopefully continue to reach out with empathy to our gay brothers and sisters and GLBT individuals and accept their pain even if we cannot accept all their requests.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Ralph

Tue, 14 July 2020 22 Tammuz 5780