As a Gay, Orthodox Jew, I Always Thought I Was Passover's Wicked Son

Until I realized that I was the child who didn't know how to ask – because my community didn't know how to answer.

Benjamin Ellis
Benjamin Ellis
Who's Gonna Love Me Now? A film by Tomer and Barak Heymann
Who's Gonna Love Me Now? A film by Tomer and Barak HeymannCredit: Heymann Brothers Films
Benjamin Ellis
Benjamin Ellis

I never knew which child I was.

Every year at the Passover seder, we read the allegory of the four sons. Growing up in an observant, Orthodox family, we always took this section quite seriously. How should parents respond to the different questions that come their way? What kinds of child did we all aspire to be? Are there questions, like that of the wicked son, that should never be asked?

Reading about these children, these archetypes of Jewish living, filled me with worry.

I knew that I wasn’t what I seemed to my family. On the surface I was a good Jewish boy. I kept Shabbat and kashrut, I wore my kippah and went to shul regularly. But there was something about me that – if they knew – would surely out me as the wicked son. I fancied other boys and I was pretty sure the righteous son wasn’t gay. So for years I hid in the darkness, living in fear of being found out.

Pesach is a time when Jewish people celebrate freedom. Many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people take this as an opportunity to celebrate our own liberation. We tell of our individual and communal journeys from oppression and hiding, through the wilderness of uncertainty, to the celebration (in the West, at least) of freedoms that within living memory were unimaginable. We remember the bitterness of the rejection we were forced to swallow, and the salty tears that we shed as a result.

Pesach is also a time of community. In Temple times, this was built into the fabric of the ritual as groups of people came together to eat their paschal lamb. In modern times, we reflect this by opening the seder with an Aramaic pre-amble: all who are hungry, come and eat; all who are needy, come and join our seder. With these words we call out: we are a community because all are welcome; we are all diminished if some of us are missing. Our tradition insists that we make sure nobody is left behind.

Yet, when it comes to the inclusion of LGBT people, not all communities fully fulfill this obligation. Just as there are four archetypal sons of the seder, there are five archetypes of how Jewish communities relate to LGBT people.

The intolerant community openly discriminates against LGBT people and permits homophobia to go unchallenged. In the intolerant community, LGBT people know they are not welcome and either leave or hide their identity.

The tolerant community is a quiet, awkward place where discussions of LGBT issues are avoided, even though some privately support LGBT people. In the tolerant community, LGBT people feel uncertain and cautious, not knowing if they can be open or not.

The accepting community recognizes the presence of LGBT people, but focuses on reducing discrimination and intolerance. In this community, LGBT people can openly discuss their identity and their partners, knowing that their presence will not be challenged.

The welcoming community sees LGBT inclusion as a Jewish value. Public speech and materials explicitly include LGBT people, and LGBT are represented in the leadership. Here, LGBT people know that their presence and contribution is valued.

The celebratory community recognizes that it would be diminished without its LGBT members. It understands that LGBT inclusion is an ongoing process of learning from LGBT people. Communal and ritual events and facilities meet the needs of LGBT lives. LGBT people know their needs will be met.

Each community has its own traditions and aspirations, and it is for each one to identify where on the spectrum of inclusion it currently lies, and where it would like to be.

Looking back at my childhood, I think I was wrong.

I wasn't the wicked child. I was the child who didn’t know how to ask, what to ask or who to ask. And I think that this was largely because I inhabited a community that didn’t know how to answer. While it takes courage for a child to ask, it also takes courage for a community to break from the bonds of the known, and to set out on a journey whose destination is yet unknown. But going on this journey is a duty that our communities can no longer shirk. We cannot expect others to do all the work.

As an adult, now living as an openly gay, Jewish (but no longer religiously observant) man, I often think about how harmful uncertainty can be. It is all too easy for communities to drift along in silence, lost in a perpetual plague of darkness, avoiding outright homophobia but not finding ways to explicitly include LGBT people.

We should make no mistake about it. This resulting uncertainty still experienced by LGBT people in large parts of the Jewish community causes avoidable pain. It is unacceptable that conversations about LGBT inclusion are still whispered in the shadows. It is intolerable that we allow LGBT people to believe that our shared heritage is not theirs to inherit.

As Jews, when one of us suffers, we all suffer. As Jews, our tradition tells us that we stand together. This year we are slaves. Next year, let’s see if we can all be free.

Benjamin Ellis is co-director of Jewish LGBT advocacy group Keshet UK. After studying at Yeshivat Har Etzion, he completed Cambridge and UCL medical school, and studied public health at Johns Hopkins. He works as a rheumatologist in London, and sings in Jewish and LGBT choirs.

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