More than 160 Orthodox religious leaders have signed their names to a statement asserting support for gay Jews — one of the first overtures to the community by the traditional movement.
“Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews With a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community,” published online
July 22, is an attempt at being inclusive while not advocating any change in the interpretation of the strict Jewish laws that govern sexuality.
Signers include mostly Orthodox rabbis, rebbetzins and professors at Orthodox yeshivas.
The essence of the document upholds halachah (Jewish law) in its prohibition of same-sex sexual interactions, while emphasizing that “embarrassing, harassing or demeaning someone with a homosexual orientation or same-sex attraction is a violation of Torah prohibitions that embody the deepest values of Judaism.”
Rabbi Judah Dardik of Oakland’s Modern Orthodox Beth Jacob Congregation said the document “is not designed to change halachah, nor is it a step in that direction. It is designed to address the place of homosexual Jews in our community, to affirm that every Jew has a home in Jewish life.”
Dardik added his name to the list in the days after it was first published at StatementOfPrinciplesNYA.blogspot.com. He joined Rabbi Jacob Traub, retired from San Francisco’s Congregation Adath Israel.
“This is something that I put my name to because it’s the right thing to do — it’s as simple as that,” Traub said. “It sends a message to those in the community who have homosexual feelings that they should not feel abandoned by their synagogue.”
Like the issue of women’s role in the rabbinate, homosexuality has become a clear dividing line among Orthodox Jews.
“But the framework of the Orthodox conversation is totally different from the liberal Jew of 2010,” Dardik noted. In Orthodox Judaism, Jewish law is not something a person chooses, it’s something that shapes their choices.
“Halachah says all sex is off limits — same-sex or not — for anyone other than a married couple, and even they can only have sex at certain times of the month,” Dardik said. “That’s a very different starting point for this conversation.”
Nathaniel Helfgot, department chair of Bible and Jewish thought at Manhattan’s Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, initiated the statement. (Helfgot was one of Dardik’s teachers at his Jewish high school in New Jersey 20 years ago.)
Helfgot first had the idea for the statement after a Dec. 22 public forum on gay Orthodox Jews at Yeshiva University prompted a backlash from students and teachers, who fired back with petitions and public lectures condemning the event.
Nearly 1,000 students attended the forum, at which a few gay students spoke of the pain they had suffered trying to reconcile their two identities.
“In the community today there is a lot of pain; there is a lot of suffering and unnecessary shunning,” Helfgot said. “It’s one thing to say that the Torah forbids homosexual sex. It’s another thing to say that someone who is a homosexual isn’t entitled to come into my synagogue, and if they adopt a child, that child shouldn’t be given a Jewish education. Those are very different things.”
The statement attempts to walk a fine line — offering acceptance to gay Orthodox Jews while not accepting their sexuality, the latter of which would be a violation of Torah.
It states repeatedly that “the question of whether sexual orientation is primarily genetic, or rather environmentally generated, is irrelevant to our obligation to treat human beings with same-sex attractions and orientations with dignity and respect.”
It also states that although halachic Judaism cannot legitimize gay marriage and couplehood, Orthodox Jews must uphold Jewish values in their interactions with gay and lesbian Jews and their children.
Dardik says this is already the norm at Beth Jacob. “We have had gay members of our shul and they are proud of their community because they’re treated with love, respect and dignity.”
Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz of Adath Israel said he hasn’t heard much buzz among his congregants about the statement.
“If someone is gay or lesbian and comes to our shul, which they have, it’s not an issue,” Strulowitz said. “It’s not the criteria we judge people on at our shul. The truth is we don’t judge anyone at our shul.
“This will have a much bigger impact on the East Coast,” he added. “I was recently in [my hometown of] Miami, where a Conservative synagogue was considering hiring a gay cantor, which had never been done, and the community was in real upheaval. Out here, no one would bat an eyelash.”
Strulowitz said he has not yet decided whether he will sign the statement.
“This is a very fluid conversation,” he said. “I think it’s going to make a conversation that was already happening more public and prominent.”
The statement does not lay out a solution for what gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews should do about the conflict between their commitment to Jewish law and their sexual orientation.
Shmuly Yanklowitz, one of the signatories and founding co-director of Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice organization, said he has received tearful phone calls from gay Orthodox friends expressing relief that their conflicted existences were being acknowledged.
“I think almost everybody agrees that it’s not a perfect document,” Yanklowitz said. “But I think it’s a huge step forward for Orthodoxy in breaking with a homophobic past. It is basically saying that to be gay is not to be anti-Torah.”
Stacey Palevsky writes for j. Gal Beckerman writes for the Forward.