A queer friend of mine from a haredi Orthodox background had posed a query publicly on social media. She had attended a conference on LGBTQ inclusion. There she learned that some Catholic priests made a practice of going into gay bars in full clerical garb. They would sit in the bar, and when queer Catholics approached them, the priests would affirm God’s love and their belonging in the church.
My friend asked her community of observant Jews, acknowledging that rabbis don’t have any identifying clerical garb: When might Orthodox rabbis do the same?
As an Orthodox rabbi myself, I was intrigued. I discovered a rainbow kippah online and decided to purchase it.
It managed to garner attention the first day I wore it. A woman took a picture of me and motioned a thumbs-up. A homeless man on the subway who was begging for money approached, pointing to my kippah, and said, “Now I like that” and bumped my fist. A man in high heels came up to me before getting off at his stop and said, “Thanks for the yarmulke.” That same day, when I made my way to the headquarters of Chabad Lubavitch for a meeting, a Hasid asked me where he could find a kippah like mine. I surmised: The kippah works.
But what is it symbolizing and is it enough?
The kippah is a symbol of my commitment to God, to Torah and to the Jewish people. To me, the rainbow kippah is also a symbol that God and Judaism love you no matter your sexual orientation.
I understand that the plain reading of Leviticus considers homosexual sex a toevah, often translated as an abomination. I understand that Jewish law views kiddushin, the ritual ceremony of marriage, as a legal structure between a man and a woman. I know and respect this.
But I also believe that the Torah does not want human beings to live alone, and it supports a covenantal relationship between parties as they build a faithful Jewish home. I know that Judaism, for thousands of years, has had a rich understanding of the diversity of gender identities. I know that the Torah affirms the God-endowed dignity of all human beings.
In the 2018 teen drama “Boy Erased,” based on Garrard Conley’s memoir describing his experience in a gay conversion program, a scene between a Baptist pastor father and his adult gay son has stayed with me. Conley’s character says something along the lines of “I’ve tried to change, God knows I’ve tried. I can’t change. Now it is your turn.”
The rainbow kippah is also a symbol that God and Judaism love you no matter your sexual orientation.
I’ve thought about how resonant that particular sentence felt. The onus of responsibility now rests upon those of us in religious leadership positions. We must continue to make space, validate, humanize, empathize and support those who have long felt suppressed by our traditions, and not the aggrieved parties themselves.
My own rabbinical school, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, which is a beacon of progressive traditionalism, informed its students and alumni in April that one of its final-year students, an openly gay man, would not be receiving ordination after years of study at the seminary. It was a painful reminder that LGBTQ Jews still lack the ability to fully participate as equals in all facets of Orthodox life.
That is why, going forward, I will be officiating wedding ceremonies for queer Jews.
I’m passionately committed to God, Jewish law, Torah and the Jewish people. These won’t be typical kiddushin ceremonies. Instead, they will be similar to the brit shutafim (covenantal partnership) ceremonies the visionary Rabbi Steven Greenberg, founder of Eshel, has been performing for years. Founded in 2010, Eshel provides community and acceptance for LGBTQ Jews who are Orthodox.
I understand that for some, this may feel like a blatant break from tradition, and I know some of my teachers and the larger Orthodox community believe that this is crossing a line that should not be crossed.
Yet I know that there are a small but growing number of Orthodox rabbis from across the Modern Orthodox spectrum who believe that this is where we have to be moving. I hope that in doing so as a community, queer Jews will see themselves as valued in the community and see that their rabbis are ready to celebrate their life choices of sacred covenantal marriage, as well. It is not only about upholding the dignity of the human being, but upholding the dignity of the Torah itself, which emphasizes the need for loving partnership.
A wedding day should be a joyous day for loving companions, as liturgy connotes, regardless of their sexual orientation. If the couple is choosing to live Jewish lives, build a Jewish home and raise Jewish children, our traditional rabbinate must seize the opportunity to welcome and work with these families at their most precious lifecycle moments. If we don’t, we risk further alienation and falling into an abyss of religious irrelevance by denying these couples their rightful place of belonging.
Shouldn’t our Orthodox communities rush at the opportunity to keep as many Jews engaged in their Judaism? Is this the Torah and this its reward?
We are long overdue for a new paradigm. I am humbled to be part of a new generation seeking to straddle the sacred tradition we inherit as well as the humanity before us.