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.