Whisper It, but Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Community Is Starting to Talk About Homosexuality

Observers say there is a growing understanding among many Haredim that the previously taboo subject can no longer be ignored

Ultra-Orthodox man in Jerusalem.
Olivier Fitoussi

When a religious Knesset member was pressured by his party into resigning last week after attending the wedding of a gay nephew, many Israelis saw it as further proof of the intolerance and rigidity in the ultra-Orthodox world. But others saw just the opposite.

The real news, they insisted, was not that Yigal Guetta had been given the boot from the Shas party, but rather that an ultra-Orthodox politician in Israel had attended a gay wedding, had urged other members of his family to join him and was not afraid to speak about it publicly.

“This was not just an ordinary family gathering,” notes Prof. Tamar El Or, a sociologist from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem who has studied the ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) community. “It was a Jewish religious ceremony, and what Guetta said was that it was his obligation to attend and make his nephew happy. That is pretty revolutionary.”

Guetta, who submitted his official resignation on Sunday, had been urged to step down by a group of prominent rabbis who, in a letter, described his decision to attend a “forbidden” wedding as “an egregious offense.” Rather than wait to be officially dismissed by his party, he decided to leave on his own, no apologies made.

Guetta had publicized the fact that he attended the wedding in an Army Radio interview early last week. Although he insisted he was opposed to gay marriage, Guetta explained that for him, family ties took precedence and he believed it was his duty to honor his sister by attending her son’s wedding.

The wedding that cost him his parliamentary position was held two years ago, well before Guetta had become a parliamentarian for Shas (the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi party whose supporters are traditionally of Middle Eastern or North African origin).

Yigal Guetta after submitting his resignation to Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein on September 17, 2017.
Olivier Fitoussi

The ultra-Orthodox community may not accept or tolerate homosexuality, but according to Prof. Kimmy Caplan, chairman of the Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry at Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, it is finally starting to address the issue.

“Not only homosexuality, but also other phenomena once considered to be stains on the family or the community – mental illness, for example, or children who left the Orthodox way of life,” he says. “These are phenomena the Haredi community has been starting to come to terms with. There is a growing understanding that they exist, that they can’t be hidden or denied, and that they have to be dealt with.”

Signs of this change, Caplan says, are evident in the different ways ultra-Orthodox community leaders have reacted to Gay Pride events in Israel over the years.

“In the past, they would come out very strongly against these events, saying they were forbidden, an abomination, etc.,” he notes. “Lately, they’ve quieted down.”

New willingness

Guetta is probably not an archetypal representative of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community, though. To begin with, he comes from a Sephardi party that is far less rigid than its Ashkenazi counterparts.

As El Or notes: “Ultra-Orthodox Sephardi Jews tend to be much more tolerant and accepting of those who are different than their Ashkenazi counterparts. In the Sephardi community, it is much less common for families to cut ties with children who come out as gay – so in a way I’m not surprised it was someone from Shas involved in this incident.” Within the party itself, Guetta belonged to the more moderate wing.

Yet even among the more rigid ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews, recent examples indicate a new willingness to address and discuss publicly what has long been taboo.

About 18 months ago, it emerged that MK Menachem Eliezer Moses, from the United Torah Judaism party, is the father of an openly gay daughter. In an interview with Walla TV, Heidi Moses, an aspiring politician and lesbian activist, said she and her father remained close, even after she came out.

Orthodox participants in the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade, August 2017.
Tammy Philip

Although Moses had previously acknowledged that one of his 10 children is gay, he refused to address the subject in a radio interview the day after Guetta resigned. But in a television interview with the Knesset Channel less than a year ago, he said he respected her very much, his main concern was for her welfare and that he did not pry into the private lives of his children.

A video widely seen in Israel last month featured Faygie Stern, a reporter for the mass-circulation Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, and her ultra-Orthodox parents discussing their feelings about her coming out.

In the video, the mother revealed that when she makes a blessing over the Shabbat candles each week, she now prays that God will send her daughter a good woman with whom she can share her life. Many who viewed it were surprised not only by how accepting the parents were, but that they had chosen to go public with their story.

Double life

Even if some ultra-Orthodox Israelis are starting to acknowledge that homosexuality exists, it is still virtually impossible to live an openly gay life and remain part of the community. After all, homosexual relations are explicitly forbidden in the Torah and referred to as an “abomination.”

For gay men and women in the Haredi community, the choice often comes down to leaving the community and living an openly gay life or staying in the community and leading a double life.

Aaron Klar is unique in this regard. The 24-year-old came out to his family and friends a year ago and, by his own account, continues to live an ultra-Orthodox life in his parents’ home.

Participants in the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade, August 2017.
Tammy Philip

“I can only speak from my own experience,” he tells Haaretz. “My family and friends all know about me and accept me for what I am. But I wouldn’t say it’s indicative of any shift in attitudes in the ultra-Orthodox community. Homosexuality is still considered taboo there.”

Attitudes toward homosexuality vary greatly between the ultra-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox communities. Modern Orthodox Israelis, though certainly not all, have shown a growing acceptance of homosexuality in recent years, and it is now possible for gay people to come out and continue to live a full Jewish life within the community.

Perhaps not coincidentally, among those leading the call for greater tolerance are several prominent Modern Orthodox rabbis with family members who have come out. They include Rabbi Benny Lau, whose brother Amichai Lau-Lavie is an openly gay rabbi in New York, and Rabbi Daniel Sperber, a winner of the illustrious Israel Prize, whose daughter Abigail Sperber is the founder of Bat Kol – an organization of Orthodox lesbians.

“The Haredi world is changing just like the Modern Orthodox world, but at a much slower pace,” notes Ysoscher Katz, who grew up as an ultra-Orthodox Satmar Hasid in New York before embracing Modern Orthodoxy. Today, he serves as chair of the Talmud department at Chovevei Torah, a renowned Modern Orthodox yeshiva in New York.

In past years, he says, it was common for ultra-Orthodox families to kick children out for going “off the derech” – a term used to describe those who stop living an observant lifestyle (“derech” is Hebrew for “path”). “That is not happening as much anymore,” he says, “and perhaps one day we’ll begin to see the same thing with children who come out of the closet.”

Havruta, an organization of religious gay men in Israel, mainly serves the Modern Orthodox community. But its chairman, Daniel Jonas, says this is starting to change. “We have started getting quite a few inquiries from ultra-Orthodox men, especially from the Hasidic community, in recent years,” he reveals.

The internet factor

Jonas attributes this development to greater use of the internet in ultra-Orthodox society. “It’s clearly caused a revolution there,” he says. “You can hear it even in the type of terminology ultra-Orthodox men use these days – terminology they are clearly learning from the internet and which they would never have known just a couple of years ago.”

But it is far more common for women to come out in Haredi society than men, he says. “Women tend to go out into the world more because they work, while the men sit in yeshivas – and because they sit in yeshivas all day, they are subject to greater supervision.”

Elimelech Zilbershlag's Facebook page

Bat Kol, he notes, has a much larger ultra-Orthodox contingency than Havruta.

While ultra-Orthodox society does address homosexuality, it deals with it in a very different way, says Jonas. “The attitude is that as long as everything looks fine from the outside, you just turn a blind eye. That’s why we sometimes hear stories about ultra-Orthodox rabbis who advise gay men to go find a corner in the park, do what they have to do, and then go home to their wives. The most important thing, as far as they’re concerned, is to keep the family intact.”

Attitudes are slowly changing though, says Caplan, even if ultra-Orthodox community leaders are hard pressed to acknowledge it. “They can’t admit it because if they say this is something legitimate, they are contradicting the values they uphold,” he says.