What law justifies excluding LGBT Jews?
I call on those who reject the sanctity of same-sex relationships to hold a single standard regarding all couples: gay or straight.
Once again, I have found myself defending my belief in equal rights for members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. But, even though I am still doing so in a Jewish context, this time I am not advocating to an Orthodox community. Rather, I’m voicing my views to non-Orthodox Jews.
I acknowledge that the issue of how religious communities accept LGBT people is not unique to Judaism. Just last week, Texas Governor Rick Perry put his own views in the spotlight with his controversial video, “Strong.” The fact that it warranted more than 663,000 “dislikes” on YouTube makes it clear this video hit a nerve among its viewers.
But while Perry’s video claimed to speak on behalf of Christians, Jews have also been dealing with the issue of accepting LGBT members of the community.
In response to a same-sex marriage officiated by Rabbi Steve Greenberg, an Orthodox-ordained rabbi, more than 100 Orthodox rabbis issued a statement condemning the wedding, declaring, “A union that is not sanctioned by Torah law is not an Orthodox wedding, and by definition a person who conducts such a ceremony is not an Orthodox rabbi.” These rabbis have placed sanctifying a same-sex relationship squarely outside the boundaries of Orthodox Judaism.
Rabbi Josh Yuter, a graduate of Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school, addressed this issue quite insightfully from the perspective of an Orthodox rabbi. Rabbi Yuter accuses the Orthodox world of deciding which infractions render being called “not Orthodox,” officiating same-sex unions among them, and which ones do not - such as money laundering or violence (sexual or otherwise) against women. According to Rabbi Yuter, those practices are condemned, but those accused of them have not been stripped of the title Orthodox, no matter how egregious the offense.
The non-Orthodox world shares this problem. We are willing to forgive so many ritual transgressions, willing to permit so many deviations from a traditional understanding of Judaism, and yet for many non-Orthodox Jews, we cannot find a way to accept LGBT Jews as they are. For those who do not see Jewish law as binding, as well as for those who see Jewish law as flexible, this is a social problem, not a religious one.
The first problem is one of picking and choosing. If one is willing to disregard any aspect of Jewish law, such as keeping kosher or Shabbat - and here I include the Israeli population typically called “traditional” - there is no excuse for not fully accepting same-sex relationships. Of course, there is never an excuse for oppressing members of the LGBT community for being who they are, regardless of Jewish law, a point which is also shared by many Orthodox rabbis.
But for those who accept the binding nature of Jewish law, but believe that Jewish law changes with time, the issue is a bit more complicated. It is upon the Jewish law-arbiters to keep looking until they find a way to sanctify the lives and relationships of the LGBT community. To do less is to condemn them to a life of being alone, which as we learn in the book of Genesis, is not good. I can appreciate that some rabbis are not there yet, and I respect the ones who recognize the pain that their position causes. To you I say thank you for maintaining your commitment to traditional Judaism, and please keep trying to find a place for same-sex relationships within your understanding of our religion.
Until that happens, I call on those who reject the sanctity of same-sex relationships to hold a single standard regarding all couples. No one pries into the private lives of heterosexual students, asking them about what happens in their bedrooms with their husbands or boyfriends, their wives or their girlfriends. In Conservative rabbinical schools, single students and those in opposite-sex relationships are assumed to behave appropriately in the bedrooms, and they are free to live their lives without sharing intimate details with the world.
So should it be with LGBT students. Even rabbis who cannot sanctify any intimate relationship should be content to mind their own business. I hope that we have reached a point where we do not expect gay people to settle down in opposite-sex relationships. Given that, the same assumptions that are made for the benefit of opposite-sex couples should be made for same-sex couples.
This goes not only for members of our religious communities but also for its leaders. I would never dare ask if the straight men or women whom I call my rabbis observe the laws of family purity; it is none of my business. The same should be true of LGBT rabbis. Even should they live with their same-sex partners, we should assume that they live according to our standards of Jewish law regarding their relationships, and should no more assume LGBT rabbis violate Jewish law regarding the bedroom than we assume heterosexual rabbis abide by them.
Every religious community has the right to promote and enforce its laws as it sees fit. But when a community decides that the law that trumps all laws has to do with same-sex relationships, it is making a social choice to exclude a large part of our community from enriching our Jewish lives. And that choice is unacceptable.
Arie Hasit is an educator at Ramah Programs in Israel and is beginning the Israeli bet midrash program at the Schechter institute. The views expressed in this article are the author's alone.