50 Shades of Gay: How Views on Homosexuality Are Splitting the Orthodox World

While some congregations are slowly opening to gay Jews, others are becoming deeper entrenched in their rejection.

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Fifteen years ago, when he came out to friends and family, Yehoshua Shohat-Gurtler was convinced he was the only Orthodox gay man in the world. “I was sure I would have to make a choice between these two very important parts of my identity and that they couldn’t coexist,” he recalls.

But times have changed. Today, Shohat-Gurtler, a partner in a prominent Tel Aviv law firm, is part of a relatively small, yet growing community of Israelis who are both openly gay and openly Orthodox, and more often than not, valued members of their respective congregations.

But change has come slowly – far too slowly for many. Last week’s murder of a 16-year-old girl at the gay pride parade in Jerusalem serves to highlight the deep divide that still exists within Orthodoxy over attitudes toward homosexuality.

On the one hand, it was an ultra-Orthodox man, prompted by religious fanaticism, who broke into a crowd and stabbed six participants at the event. On the other hand, it took this tragedy for several prominent Orthodox rabbis to finally lift their guard and launch a public counter-attack.

“Nobody should have to live in a closet,” Rabbi Benny Lau told demonstrators at a rally in Jerusalem on Saturday night. “A closet is death. A home is life. We must make sure that no boy or girl, man or woman, is denied the chance to live in an open house full of love and warmth. That is our responsibility in the name of the Torah.”

Rabbi Daniel Sperber, a leading advocate of greater female participation in Orthodox prayer services, says he senses a definite shift in attitudes toward homosexuality. “It’s a reflection of a larger change that’s taking place,” he says. “There was a time that people in the Orthodox world didn’t talk about homosexuality at all. It was taboo. Now not only do they talk about it, but it’s even a subject discussed in halakhic books.”

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Sperber refers to “a new consensus” emerging in liberal Orthodoxy. “There is a growing feeling that one has to be compassionate toward homosexuals and lesbians and to accept them as members of the community and the synagogue,” he says.

But as progressive-minded observant Jews become more accepting of homosexuality, notes Sperber, the reverse has become true on the other side of the Orthodox spectrum. “This need to counterbalance with an even more aggressive approach is causing the gap to widen,” he says.

Shohat-Gurtler draws parallels between the process Orthodox Judaism is undergoing today in coming to terms with homosexuality to what it underwent 20 years ago with regards to gender equality – another hot-button issue that threatened to split the community apart.

“I would say it’s premature to describe a tidal shift in the Orthodox world today when it comes to accepting gays,” he says. “We’re still in the first phase, which is the debate phase, but we’re moving into the next phase, when people start challenging the rabbinical authorities and stirring things up. We have communities now that are starting to take a stand and rabbis who are talking about change.”

Shohat-Gurtler is a member of Yachad, a liberal Modern Orthodox congregation in Tel Aviv and the only one in Israel that actively reaches out to the gay community. Although other liberal Orthodox congregations in Israel have begun accepting gay and lesbian members, none have been as proactive as Yachad.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz brings a unique perspective to the debate: He grew up as an ultra-Orthodox Satmar Hasid before embracing liberal Orthodoxy, and today is a scholar-in-residence at Eshel, an organization that supports families of Orthodox homosexuals and lesbians.

“Many Orthodox Jews are moving into acceptance of homosexuals by default,” he says. “They’re in our community, like anywhere else. Synagogues are now grappling with various levels of accommodation, with some making the move more reluctantly and some less reluctantly.”

But as Katz notes, there’s a big difference between welcoming gays into the synagogue and condoning sexual activity with a member of the same sex. “Orthodoxy still hasn’t figured out how to make peace with the halakhic challenge posed by homosexuality,” he notes.

That challenge is posed by the following famous biblical verse (Leviticus 18:22) that leaves little room for interpretation: “You shall not lie with a man as with a woman. It is an abomination.”

“The red lines are obvious,” says Katz. “I don’t think you’ll find an Orthodox rabbi in the next 1,000 years who will rule that gay sex is allowed. At the same time, more and more Orthodox rabbis are starting to treat it as a genetic predisposition, and this raises a huge theological dilemma: If it’s not a choice, then how can God discriminate against these people?”

For some of the more progressive Orthodox congregations, the fallback position has become: “Don’t ask; don’t tell.”

“The Torah makes clear that anal sex between two men is prohibited, but I like to talk about the ’50 shades of gay,’” explains Katz. “In other words, there are many other things they can do that are not expressly prohibited.”

It is for this reason as well, he notes, that the Orthodox movement tends to be more accepting of lesbians than homosexuals. After all, the Torah says nothing explicit about two women having sex.

As Sperber notes, by avoiding certain questions, Orthodox congregations are able today to take a more tolerant view of homosexuality.

“Just like we don’t ask a man if he has relations with his wife when she’s menstruating [which is prohibited by Jewish law], and just like we don’t ask a congregant if he desecrated the Sabbath at home, why should we ask homosexuals what exactly they did in the bedroom?”

Although Orthodox synagogues may not be turning away gay members as they once did, not all are willing to accord them the same privileges. For example, not all such synagogues permit gay members to lead the services, read from the Torah, or even be categorized as “families” when they have partners and children.

Another challenge is the liturgy, which is not always suited to same-sex families. As Shohat-Gurtler notes, when he and his partner had their son circumcised, the traditional blessing recited did not take into account that a child might have two fathers, rather than a father and mother.

An equally confounding question for some of these congregations is how warmly to embrace their gay members.

“Many don’t like it when they’re too overt,” notes Sperber, “and when they wear clothing that publicizes their position. These synagogues would prefer a greater degree of discretion – they want what goes on at home to stay at home.”

The limits of toleration are demonstrated in the story behind the establishment of Yachad, the gay-friendly congregation in Tel Aviv. Its founders originally belonged to another liberal Orthodox synagogue in the city, which had no problem accepting gays and lesbians as members. But when a certain lesbian couple wanted to host a kiddush [sanctification ritual] in honor of their marriage, that’s where the other members drew the line. And so a new congregation was created, at least initially, in order to host such celebrations.

When did Orthodoxy start becoming less orthodox in its approach to homosexuality? Katz believes the watershed moment was a conference held five years ago at Yeshiva University, the flagship institute of Modern Orthodoxy in America, in which a group of gay students and alumni were invited to share their experiences.

Mordechai Levovitz, an alumni who took part in that conference, says that while progress has been slow even since then, more Orthodox Jews have been coming out today – and at a younger age.

Still, he notes, the mainstream Orthodox establishment remains largely entrenched in its view that homosexuals should be shunned.

“None of the Orthodox newspapers ever publish anything positive about homosexuality, only negative things,” says Levovitz, the founder a director of Jewish Queer Youth, a non-profit support group for LGBT youth in the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox community. “After what happened in Israel last week, all the Orthodox rabbis were condemning the violence, but I didn’t hear any of them acknowledge their responsibility for the negative messaging. It’s easy to say you shouldn’t kill gays, but I was hoping someone would use this as a teachable moment and come out and say ‘I’m sorry – we played a role in this.’”

As liberal as they become, Katz does not believe that Orthodox rabbis will ever agree to perform same-sex marriages, though Sperber thinks there may be a way around this. “The problem is with the word ‘marriage,’” he notes. “Perhaps they can call it something else like a ‘partnership.’”

As same-sex families like his own become more common in the Orthodox world, Shohat-Gurtler is optimistic that it will generate even more openness to gays and lesbians. “It’s one thing to turn your back on an adult,” he says, “but quite a different thing to turn your back on a child.”

In an “ironic and perverse way,” Sperber believes that last week’s tragedy may have tipped the balance in favor of those in the Orthodox world, like himself, who would like to be more welcoming to gays.

“People are becoming aware of the danger in extremism that claims basis in the Torah,” he says. “I think there will be an even greater degree of sympathy now for the homo-lesbian community to the point where Orthodox Jews will be embarrassed to speak out against them.”