The rabbis and rabbaniyot (female leaders) of Beit Hillel certainly took a small step for man when they ruled on Sunday that Orthodox Jewish communities must be accepting of gays and lesbians; but is it the giant leap for mankind that the religious gay community yearns for?
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The foundation has been set: It is in contradiction to basic Jewish values and ideals to ostracize others on the basis of their sexual orientation. But what of total acceptance of gays on their own terms? Jewish Law may demand that gays are integrated, respected and tolerated, but can gays join a synagogue as a family, say two fathers and children? Will the synagogue celebrate such a union if they decide to marry? And of course the toughest question of all: Is there any way that the law can be adapted to condone sexual acts, which contradict verses of the Pentateuch?
The historic Beit Hillel document was produced by rabbis and rabbaniyot, of which I am one, that are deeply committed to Jewish law and tradition, yet find themselves similarly pulled by compassion to the plight of religious gays, who are outcast by many communities and forced to add to their already heavy burden of internal turmoil the abandonment of family, friends and society.
Consequently, it took us a full eight months of soul searching, research, consultation with a wide variety of experts, and discussions with many gay religious Jews from the full range of backgrounds and attitudes, to produce the balanced, yet novel, ruling. Besides several conferences and meetings on the topic, the process included countless drafts, endless debates over email, and tearing out our hair over the turn of a phrase or a possible implication, to maximize sensitivity, while staying within traditional boundaries.
Eventually we reached a document that more than 100 Jewish leaders could agree on. But was this the beginning of the process or the end? At a conference on Sunday night, where the document was released to an audience of some 200 people, primarily members of the religious gay community and Beit Hillel rabbis and rabbaniyot, gays were among those invited to speak from the podium. While the very willingness of Orthodox rabbis to offer gays this public recognition and opportunity to express their views and share their experiences in a supportive, attentive atmosphere is in itself not to be taken for granted, the gay Jews, while expressing their deep appreciation for Beit Hillel’s brave steps, were no less critical. The document, they emphasized, addresses the general community, while falling short of providing relief and support for their aching souls, torn between their obligation to Torah and their sexual orientation – both, they believe, given to them by the same Creator.
By contrast, the day following the publication saw ferocious attacks on Beit Hillel by more conservative Zionist rabbis, including some whose words clearly demonstrated that they had not even read the document, yet found it necessary to throw base insults at the organization, comparing them to kindergarten students, suggesting they had never visited a Beit Midrash (where Torah is studied) and declaring that they were not authentic rabbis.
Surrounded by this environment, in which direction does one progress? Several in the audience on Sunday night demanded that today’s rabbis assume the authority of the classic sages, no less, and, just as Hillel the Elder created a “Prozbul” to overcome the cancelation of debts at the end of the Sabbatical year, when he saw that people stopped lending; just as medieval scholars created “Heter Iska” to circumvent the prohibition against taking interest as it became unfeasible with developing economics; just as with many other examples where rabbis have adapted the Law to adjust to developing realities, surely Beit Hillel can figure out a way to permit same-gender partnerships and sexual relations.
While it is beyond the scope of these musings to explain why this is not and cannot be imminent, the impossible situation religious gays find themselves in has emphatically been noted and internalized by the rabbis and rabbaniyot of Beit Hillel. While our document idealizes the pillar of restraint – the gay Jew who fully accepts the letter and spirit of the law and refrains from sexual activity – we fully understand how unreasonable it is to demand from a person to live his life without companionship, sexual intimacy, or family.
I wish I could declare that Beit Hillel will soon find a solution to this conflict; I cannot. But I can promise that there is at least one rabbi there who won’t allow them to stop trying.
After making aliyah from Australia, Rabbi Yitzhak Ajzner spent a decade in education and almost two decades as a software engineer. He has served as a community rabbi and is currently a member of the Beit Midrash for halakha of Beit Hillel.