Thursday, August 19, 2010

Being Gay and Jewish

I’m back from a long weekend in Washington D.C. and there is lots to write about. The upcoming posts many involve restaurant reviews, accounts of sights to see in the area, and maybe some other thoughts (but nothing too personal). But first, there is something that came up in the days before I left, that I wanted to share with you. Events over the weekend only served to underscore its importance. But this piece of news requires some background.

I have not mentioned it before in this space, but I am Jewish. I am not very religious or observant but I do identify with the Jewish religion and culture and I like to think I maintain Jewish values. I am very proud to be a Jew. In any religion, being gay can present many contradictions and difficulties. On the one hand, almost every religion is based on love and understanding for your fellow humankind. On the other hand, many religions have prohibitions against and condemn homosexuality. Judaism embodies both sides of this dilemma very well. There are a great many verses from the Torah and other scriptures that command treating people with respect and dignity. What immediately comes to mind is the statement of Rabbi Hillel: “What is hateful to you, do not do unto your neighbour”. This is actually the origin of Christianity’s Golden Rule, which became: “Love your neighbour as yourself”. On the other hand, there is a very clear statement in Leviticus that very clearly condemns homosexual activity. In addition, one of the most important things Jews are urged to do is to marry and have children. I was in Washington to attend the wedding of a family member, so these issues are very much in my mind right now.

In recent years, many Jews have been seeking ways to resolve the above contradiction. There are many branches of Judaism that vary most obviously by degree of adherence to tradition and Jewish Law (Halakha). Their responses to gay rights have accordingly been quite different. Reform Judaism does not require its followers to be bound by scriptural laws, but focus instead on Jewish values, morality and the connection with God. Because of this, many Reform Temples are very gay friendly, and I think I recall hearing of one or two openly gay Rabbis. Reconstructionists tend to practice their faith with more rigor, but holds that many of the ancient laws are open to modern reinterpretation. This is probably the most gay friendly branch out there. I say probably because I am not very familiar with this small group of Jews, but I know there are many female Rabbis, something impossible in more traditional forms of Judaism and I have heard it is also gay friendly. Conservative Jews are more traditional, but there is some leeway granted to the congregants in how strictly they follow Jewish law. Finally, orthodox Jews follow Halakha very strictly and are reluctant to accept modern changes. Many orthodox Jews who are gay feel pressured to hide their sexuality, because to be an openly practising homosexual is to openly violate halakha. Furthermore, this practical banning of gays seems to have engendered hatred and intolerant attitudes, including belief in the debunked notions that being gay is a choice or is an “illness” that can be “cured”. These attitudes now violate Jewish morality and are greatly out of step with modern attitudes, so the orthodox community has been making attempts to settle the contradictions and clarify the orthodox position on homosexuality. Recently, a book was published by a gay orthodox Jew in Montreal about living as a gay man and an orthodox Jew. Just last week, I became aware of a Statement of Principles developed by an international group of orthodox rabbis to codify gay rights in the synagogue and also to identify the limits of these rights. It also serves as a petition and invites Rabbis around the world to sign on to this statement. It was completed about a month ago, but it only came to my attention last week, when there was a news story about prominent Rabbis in Montreal that had added their signatures to the document. The overall tone of the Statement of Principles is one of acceptance and tolerance. The first principle states that “All human beings are created in the image of God and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect”. This basic point about dignity and respect is repeated several times throughout the document. The first principle condemns ridicule and harassment of homosexuals. Further statements state that gays should be welcomed as members of congregations, that Jews who want their orientation to remain secret should not be outed and, by the same token, those who are openly gay should not be required to stay in the closet, a statement considerably more progressive than the US Military’s position. Although some in the orthodox community still believe that homosexuality is a choice and promote “change therapies”, this statement asserts that, since the majority of mental health professionals reject these ideas and believe they could be dangerous, it is morally correct to reject these “therapies” if one feels them to be unnecessary or dangerous.

Some will feel that the statement does not go far enough. It very clearly states that marriage can only be between a man and a woman, and that homosexual activities constitute a violation of halakha, as distinguished from homosexual feelings. It also says that the orthodox community cannot give its blessing to same-sex affirmation or commitment ceremonies. I agree that it would be nice if the Rabbis had gone further and allowed these things, but knowing what I do about orthodox Judaism, I understand that it would have been just about impossible to maintain religious standards as they practice them currently. This statement was also produced as a result of debate and consensus among a very large group of Rabbis, which meant many people with a wide range of personal views needed to all be satisfied. Furthermore, if one reads the statement carefully, one will realize there are many things left unsaid that indicate a more progressive attitude, Although they can not approve of commitment ceremonies, they encourage synagogues to welcome and accept children of same-sex couples into the congregation and religious schools. While homosexual activity is prohibited, they state that

“We do not here address what synagogues should do about accepting members who are openly practicing homosexuals and/or living with a same-sex partner. Each synagogue together with its rabbi must establish its own standard with regard to membership for open violators of halakha.
Those standards should be applied fairly and objectively. “

What this means to me is that the rabbis are equating homosexual activities with any other violation of halakha, for example, violation of the Dietary Laws or other, far more obscure prohibitions that few people follow. Most orthodox synagogues are not overly harsh with these other open violations and the interdiction that standards be applied fairly and objectively ensures that openly practised homosexuality is no more severe a violation than any other. It is acknowledged that, while gay Jews cannot fulfill all the biblical commandments, or mitzvot, most scholars reject the notion that fulfilment of mitzvot is an all-or-nothing idea, meaning gay Jews can still be good Jews. Another statement implies that the only real criteria for special religious offices within the synagogue should be that the entire congregation is comfortable with the choice. This means that any synagogue can appoint gay people to the positions, if the members are comfortable with the choice. This satisfies the more conservative congregations that don’t want to be forced to be more progressive, while opening the door for those who wish to be more progressive. There is even more to the Statement of Principles, but this post is getting long enough. The full text of the Statement of Principles is available online, posted in English and Hebrew and is accompanied by a list of rabbis, educators and mental health professionals who endorse the Statement and have signed it. If you are an orthodox Jew and are in one of the above professions, you are welcomed to sign the document yourself by replying to the email address provided within the document. The link to the document is posted below:

I urge you to read the full document yourself and would like to hear your opinions on the issue. Please remember that this represents the MOST CONSERVATIVE AND TRADITIONAL form of Judaism and does not represent the majority of the Jewish community, which fall into on of the other branches of Judaism. Other forms of Judaism are generally more tolerant, even allowing gay Rabbis and accepting gay partnerships or unions in some form. I believe that, when compared to other religions, Judaism offers a very progressive approach. Perhaps some of you who practice other religions might know more about how your religion deals with gay issues. I welcome and encourage comments about this but, since I am venturing into religion, I will ask again that all comments remain respectful. Any hateful comments will be deleted. I don’t really expect any problems but just want to make sure everyone is aware of the rules.

Note that I have added some new blogs to my link list. I may be adding some more in the future if I feel they are a good fit for my site.


  1. Thanks for this very thorough & sensitive discussion of the place LGBTs have in the Jewish religion.

  2. Thank you for commenting, b niemic. I also wrote a follow-up post to this, titled "Being Gay and Jewish - Revisited" that was posted November 19, 2010. It also included a review of a great book you might like.