Home Perspectives Opinions It’s time to shift the tone on LGBT issues

It’s time to shift the tone on LGBT issues

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Jewish tradition tells us that the Torah has 70 faces. Debate is encouraged in Judaism – it is how our sages brought consensus to the masses. That’s why Barbara Kay’s Jan. 18 oped, in which she outlined the apparent Jewish consensus on abortion, homosexuality, and transgender rights, is both naïve and irresponsible.

I come from a place of experience: I’m an openly gay, religious Jew, and I’m also a baal teshuvah – meaning, one who deepens their observance after being secular. I became observant long after I came out as gay about 10 years ago.

The Torah’s opening chapters teach us that all humans are created B’tzelem  Elohim – in God’s image. Yet Ms. Kay dismisses any attempt at reconciling one’s gay identity with Torah as “fake-Jewish.” But when I speak to Orthodox rabbis – and yes, those conversations are still mostly being conducted closed doors – it’s clear to me that current Jewish law prohibits one specific act only: male anal sex. Attraction, dating, having children, and showing other forms of intimacy are not prohibited by Torah.

Moreover, a growing minority of Orthodox rabbis are rightly recognizing the traditionally prescribed alternative for a gay person who wants to remain Jewishly observant – celibacy – as ridiculous. These include Rabbi Chaim Rapoport, the renowned ultra-Orthodox Lubavitcher and former adviser to Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who has characterized “the proposition of a lifelong celibacy to be near impossible.” If one must make the choice between violating a current law and staying in the tradition, the choice should always be the latter.

After all, virtually no one keeps all 613 commandments. We don’t ask women whether they lit Shabbat candles on Friday night before allowing them to enter the synagogue the next morning, so why should we question what sexual position men practise? Could you imagine? “Was it anal? Then no aliyah for you!”

Kay also argues that “non-binary is non-Jewish.” The truth is that transgender Jews have even stronger text-based arguments supporting them. The Talmud speaks of no less than six genders. The Mishnah states that “androgynous” is a gender category of its own, and goes into detail about Jews who have genitals resembling those of males and females. Black-hat New York Rabbi Mike Moskowitz wears tzitzit coloured blue, white and pink to advocate for the acceptance of marginalized trans Jews.

Kay also makes another mistake: assuming that Jewish law never changes. History proves this to be false. The rabbis explained away the need to stone the rebellious son in the public square, developed a system for the sale of hametz in time for Passover even if it sits in one’s cupboard, and narrowed agricultural laws of the Torah because they were too onerous for farmers. But somehow, when it comes matters of sexuality and gender, there’s a double standard.

Orthodoxy has begun to shift its tone on LGBT issues in part because the rabbinate, in promoting the simplistic face of Torah Kay uses, has blood on its hands. Rabbis have sent countless LGBT Jews to torturous conversion therapy, broken up their families, and ruined their yeshiva educations. According to Jewish Queer Youth, which supports religious LGBT youth in New York, a shocking 70 per cent of its drop-in participants have attempted or contemplated suicide. One particularly humble Orthodox rabbi told me that of all Jewish denominations, Orthodoxy must work the hardest to repent for how it has destroyed the lives of LGBT members.

The truth is, Kay’s oversimplification of nuanced concepts, her naïve views which she takes as fact, and perpetuating of dangerous myths that have direct implications on human well-being are in stark contrast to Judaism. After all, the most crucial “Jewish ideal” – to use another Kay term – is saving a life. With virtually no exceptions, Jewish laws go out the window when it comes to saving another human being. It’s really as simple as that.

There are 70 faces of Torah. I would encourage Kay to explore them more deeply.

Andrew Dale is a frequent speaker on LGBT issues in Orthodoxy, and a volunteer with Eshel, which creates inclusive spaces for LGBT Orthodox-affiliated Jews.

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  • Dianne S

    Kay’s article was ignorant and driven by ideology…. and not by Jewish ideology either, but by a weird reactionary homophobic and transphobic ideology.

  • Mordechai Bulua

    Andrew Dale writes ” I’m an openly gay, religious Jew, and I’m also a baal teshuvah.” That is an oxymoron. Dale admits that the act is forbidden by Torah but then goes on to say that living a life of celibacy is ridiculous. The implication is that Dale not only has such tendencies but acts on them. No true baal teshuva would ever go around saying “I’m an open Shabbat desecrator or open pork eater. Why is this any different? Finally, Dale writes that anything is permissible when it comes to saving a life. Unfortunately, Dale was not taught that which all religious Jews know; that in Jewish law, there are three exceptions to this rule (the three cardinal sins), one of which is sexual immorality, which includes sexual acts forbidden by the Torah. Francis Bacon said it best: “A little science estranges a man from God, a lot of science brings him back.”

    • Paul Adam

      The purpose of this article isn’t an inquiry into the author’s tight to call himself an Orthodox Jew and a Ba’al Teshuva, (although he does have that right). It’s an inquiry into the responses and attitudes of the Orthodox community to Jews who identify as LGBTQ and whether we accept them or not. The author’s sexual life is a private matter.

      Are we going to allow it to be a private matter, or are we going to continue to subject people to litmus tests, inquisitions, diatribes, patronization, conversion therapy and all these other indignities? How long are we going to try to come up with excuses to exempt ourselves from our duty to love our fellow Jews?

      • Mordechai Bulua

        When you say the debate is whether we accept them or not, of course, we should accept them and love them, but that doesn’t mean that as orthodox Jews, we should accept their unorthodox lifestyle, which the Torah prohibits. The problem is when LGBTQ’s want their lifestyle to be accepted. Our Sages said it best: Love the sinner, hate the sin.

      • ‫משה מטורנהיל‬‎

        Paul Adam said “The author’s sexual life is a private matter.” Perhaps Andrew Dale’s sexuality was private at some point, but he has made his sexual preferences public in this article.
        Paul Adam interprets Andrew Dale’s article as a protest against Orthodox maltreatment of homosexuals. The truth is, Dale’s article goes further than this. Dale demands approval of homosexuality from Orthodox rabbis, warning them that failure to do this will directly cause a massive suicide epidemic among Orthodox homosexuals. Surely Paul Adam can agree that this sort of suicide blackmail is not the best or the most proper way to convince opponents to adopt a different position.

  • Moshe Wise

    Andrew Dale, in a strongly worded rebuttal of Barbara Kay http://www.cjnews.com/perspectives/opinions/the-torah-and-transgenderism, vigorously defends the legitimacy of LGBT activity for Orthodox Jews. Dale rebukes those rabbis who perpetuate outdated sexual norms and calls on these men to adopt a more pluralistic view of sexuality. Dale warns of a massive suicide epidemic among Orthodox Jews if the rabbis refuse to catch-up to the rest of society and allow all consenting adults to enjoy each other in accordance with their own fantasies and temptations. Dale reminds rabbis that they have the authority to correct or modify traditions that are no longer beneficial to the Jewish people and urges them to exercise this power.
    If I was an Orthodox rabbi (I am not) I would tell Dale that suicide epidemics are rooted in unstable personalities, not in whether rabbis permit or forbid certain sexual activities. Suicidal persons would doubtlessly be better helped by pharmacological and counseling than by “updating” rabbinical norms. As far as the gap between rabbinical values and “civilized” values, this is a phenomenon already discussed in the Pentateuch, where God commands Israel to create a society very different from its “civilized” neighbours. Even if all of the references Dale makes to certain LGBT-friendly rabbis were accurate (I have my doubts), these rabbis’ views do not constitute a binding precedent on their peers.
    All told, while I understand Dale’s eagerness to “civilize” the rabbis, his arguments here are not very persuasive. I would suggest Dale use different arguments if he chooses to effectively campaign for rabbinical sanction of LGBT activities in Orthodoxy.

  • NorthernEagle

    One can empathized deeply with Andrew Dale’s situation, and his committment to Jewish growth is laudable, but he makes several oversimplifications and distortions about Torah in his article.

    First, even if as Dale suggests the Torah only prohibits one act, male on male anal sex, and that is a great stretch and in no way clearly a view held by all Orthodox rabbis, or even non-Orthodox ones, it would still be consistent with the halachic principle of ‘fence around the Torah’ to prohibit all male homosexual practices in order to avoid male on male anal sex from occuring. Whether in the heat of gay passion, or otherwise.

    This same ‘fence’ principle is part, but not all, of the reason why we can’t have milk with any kind of meat, not just beef. “You shall not seeth a calf in its mother’s milk” is not technically violated if you have cheese on chicken, because that cheese is from cows or goats milks and chickens only have chickens for mothers. But in order to avoid a mistake (a beef cheeseburger) we also rule out a chicken cheeseburger. Fence around the Torah.

    The second thing is normative Judaism’s ban on male homosexuality is also as Barbara Kay says, there at least in part for the reason that it thwarts procreation. The Torah is against vasectomies for the same reason. The Torah is even disapproving of bachelorhood (man should not be alone) for the same reason. The Torah is not picking on gay men here. The Torah’s ban on homosexual sex is fully consistent with the principal of bolstering natural procreation. Modern scientific work-arounds (surrogacy etc) don’t alter that principle even as we can rejoice in the kids these procedures produce.

    Lastly, Dale states that any demand for celibacy is unreasonable. He’s right. Judaism is not an ascetic faith that frowns on sex. Celibacy is not only not celebrated, it’s frowned upon. That’s why he and other gay men are, far from being asked to be celebate, halachically just as free as straight men to have sex with as many unmarried of-age consenting women as they’d like. Ideally within the context of Jewish marriage and children. An unreasonable request? Only if you believe in a totally unchanging and binary spectrum of male sexual preference. Countless millions of Jewish men who have been attracted to other men to a greater or lesser degree have gone under the chuppah with a woman. It has gone on for centuries. Even today. Some have no doubt been unhappy, and some divorces happened. But most, before the modern option of coming out arrived, just got hitched. They not only enjoyed sex with the woman they loved and emotionally bonded with her just as much as any straight man could, but they found satisfaction with the rewards of the heterosexual family compact that come with marriage and kids, and the knowledge that they were clearly on the path (granted, a sometimes difficult one) that Hashem has laid out for each and all of us.

    I know this all runs totally counter to today’s ‘progressive’ thinking whereby any restraint of one’s actions, especially sexual actions (the Torah doesn’t care much about mere inclinations), is labelled as ‘oppressive’ or ‘puritanical’ or ‘patriarchal’. But authentic Judaism cares little about those modern judgements. By contrast, Judaism cares a lot about sex. Especially who it’s happening between. Unlike the pagan world before it which basically operated on ‘anything goes’ and ‘if it feels good, do it’.

    At the end of the day, and beyond just sex, our tradition is not solely about comfort or even happiness — though a deeper happiness often comes through struggle with mitzvot and perfomance of them, however imperfect. No, Judaism is about doing the right thing as revealed to us, however difficult. If that means doing our best to avoid eating lobster (which is merely labelled ‘unclean’ for us) it definitely means avoiding those higher-level violations like male homosexuality that are labelled ‘toevah’…abomination.