Homosexuality And Orthodox Judaism

From my coverage of this past weekend’s LimmudLA:

Sunday. Feb. 14, 2010. 4 p.m.

Judaism and Homosexuality: An Orthodox Conversation

Many assume that Orthodox leaders are uniformly unwelcoming of gays and lesbians, but Orthodox communities are far from monolithic. Join a conversation between an Orthodox rabbi and the director of a gay Jewish organization on the range of Orthodox approaches to gay Jews. What are the opportunities for inclusion and the necessary limits? How does one strike a balance between upholding halacha and empathetically engaging with human diversity?

Gregg Drinkwater directs Jewish Mosaic: The National Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity, an organization that helps Jewish institutions become more welcoming of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews. He is the co-editor of Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible (NYU Press, 2009) and president of Limmud Colorado. Prior to joining Jewish Mosaic, Drinkwater worked in nonprofit communications, at a daily newspaper in Moscow, and as the news editor for San Francisco-based PlanetOut Inc., publishers of Gay.com and PlanetOut.com, the world’s most popular LGBT Web sites.

I feel guilty blogging this session given that the rabbi says he’d prefer to keep these type of discussions private, but I tell myself that Susan Freudenheim from the Jewish Journal is there taking notes, so a harmless drudge such as myself can do no damage.

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of Bnai David-Judea: “My peers call me the most liberal Orthodox rabbi they know…”

Gregg: “Do they mean that as a compliment?”

Rabbi Kanefsky: “It means they embrace me as an Orthodox rabbi. We do things programatically together. They acknowledge my Orthodoxy but put an adjective in front of it. Everything I say, you have to see it through the lens of who I am… While I will do my best to represent normative Orthodoxy, don’t go saying that because Kanefsky says this, Orthodoxy says the same thing.”

“Our congregation (Bnai David) was the only congregation on the West Coast to have a screening of Trembling Before God. We had a number of people whose stories were told in that film in the audience.”

“As a congregation, this was the kind of conversation we wanted to have about the issue of homosexuality in the Orthodox community.”

The discussion turns to the December 22, 2009 event at Yeshiva University hosted by the YU Tolerance Club and the Wurzweiler School of Social Work — “Being Gay in the Orthodox World: A Conversation with Members of the YU Community.”

Rabbi Kanefsky: “Rabbi Yosef Blau is a wonderful, wise and thoughtful rabbi. He’s the rabbi who stuck out his neck to the facilitator of that forum. There’s no end to the courage and bravery he demonstrated.”

The rabbi reads from this unofficial transcript of Rabbi Blau’s remarks: “The halakha as expressed explicitly in the Torah and in the Chachamim is clear to everyone here. And this is not what we’re here to discuss and I’m making the point in the sense that if someone does try to discuss halakha, I will ask them to stop.”

Gregg says he is not Orthodox. He says he is married to another man.

Gregg: “What would you tell young rabbis about how to deal with gay and lesbian people in their community?”

Rabbi Kanefsky: “The most important thing is to not panic… It’s difficult when you leave the academy and meet real people with real issues… If a young rabbi were to react to the word ‘homosexual’, this young rabbi will utterly fail to interact meaningfully… He has to take a step back and say, I am interacting with a holy Jew.”

Gregg: What about dealing with this issue publicly?

Rabbi Kanefsky: “We were talking about our screening of Trembling Before God. I limited that evening to members of our congregation because the members of the congregation function as an extended family. We were discussing the issue of homosexuality in the Orthodox community within a group that’s mutually trusting and mutually respectful. We were all stakeholders in the outcome. I’m almost risking my own rules right now.

I did this once at the UJ before it became AJU. I’m not sure that I look back on it as something I enjoyed doing. I didn’t know who was out there and when you don’t know who’s out there, then you don’t know whether the things you are saying are on the mark or potentially offensive or potentially misunderstood or misconstrued. I wouldn’t advise a young rabbi to write an article in the newspaper. When you don’t know who your audience is, it is so easy to misstep.

“A colleague of mine sends me an op/ed that he’s hoping to publish. I notice in one paragraph an explicit comparison in the eyes of the halacha between someone who is a practicing homosexual and someone who is a felon. You don’t mean that. You’re just trying to say that everyone is welcome in the synagogue. That’s a completely unnecessary comparison… That’s the sort of thing when people go out in public, it’s easy to say things that are misconstruable, offensive. But a mutually trusting stakeholder conversation is more effective.”

Gregg: “I want to ask you about giving advice to someone who comes to you who thinks he’s gay. Imagine an 18-year old man who comes to you and says, ‘Rabbi, I am gay.’ Or, ‘I think I’m gay.'”

Rabbi Kanefsky: “Now we’re getting to the heart of the matter.

“I just had a notice that I am invited to the 25th reunion of my college class at Yeshiva College. I am positive that twenty five years ago, it would’ve seemed obvious to me and to every other graduate of Yeshiva College who wound up going to rabbinical school that the reaction to that 18-year old would be to say, ‘Let me get you help. We can fix that.’

“In 25 years, the world has changed dramatically in our thinking… I am confident that I speak for a wide swathe of the Modern Orthodox rabbinate, based on conversations I’ve had with rabbis, based on things they’ve published, based on comments they’ve made in lectures… The understanding that a person’s sexual orientation…is what it is, a person is who they are, brings the conversation not to ‘Let’s see how we can fix this problem’ but brings it to ‘What do you want to do now? How do you want to act? Do you want to continue to live in the Orthodox community? If that’s what you want to do, let’s try to talk about what that might look like and what that might involve. What limitations on your expression of who you are will be necessary if you want to continue to function in the Orthodox community. If you do not want to live in the Orthodox community anymore, let’s see if we find the very best place for you so that you are comfortable in the sense that your personal commitment to tradition is respected and upheld with your sexual identity not being an issue that would in any way prevent you from expressing yourself completely.’

“That’s the conversation I would have. Because that’s helpful. That’s what a rabbi is intended to do. Not intended to ‘fix’ something that can’t be fixed and not to tell a person that their lives are over.”

“I was the baal koreh in Steve Greenberg‘s shul.”

“One of the points that Steve made early on, and that a lot of people have made since then, that to be gay or lesbian in the Orthodox community is extraordinarily challenging. It’s not the sort of thing a person would choose to do if they had a choice. I would take it for granted that if a person coming to me and saying, ‘I’m in the Orthodox community and I’ve always been in the Orthodox community’, I would take their word for it. It’s not something they would be making up.”

Gregg: “What about the parents?”

Rabbi Kanefsky: “Whenever I need to talk to the parent of one of my congregants, I try to put myself into the place of the parent. What if one of my children was coming to me about their child… The things that I think about are the beauty and the value and the potential and the dignity of my child and the recognition that most of the things we wish for our children don’t happen anyway. They get to a point early on where they are going to do what they want to do.

“The most important gift I can give my child is the gift of Judaism and the gift of desiring to leave the world a better place. I would be very troubled if I could not give one of those gifts. Beyond that, our children are going to make their own decisions.

“The worst thing a parent can do with a child is to back away from the relationship.”

Gregg says that many Orthodox siblings of out homosexuals have a hard time finding a shidduch (spouse).

Rabbi Kanefsky: “There’s a duality. I hope everyone appreciates the severity of this duality. Depending on where you are in the Orthodox community, the system by which people find spouses can be highly regimented, one that does not flow organically…but rather takes place within a regimented system that involves parents, teachers, rebbes, background checks.

“Everyone on the more liberal end of this issue [of homosexuality] needs to respect this reality. If I come out, then my brothers and sisters may have difficulty finding the right shidduch. That’s the sort of thing that falls on the shoulders as well of the sibling who has come out as gay or lesbian. They have to recognize, even as they have the right to expect love and support from their family, they have a responsibility to not damage the futures of their siblings.”

It seems that don’t ask, don’t tell is the quid pro quo for getting along as gay (or as one who deviates from any of Orthodox Judaism’s fundamental laws, not marrying and having sex with the same sex is a really big deviation from the Orthodox path as compared to quietly watching TV on Shabbos in the privacy of your own room) in most of the Orthodox community.

Rabbi Kanefsky: “Contrary to what you may have heard, Orthodox shuls are not entirely populated by people entirely observant of halacha.”

“Our commitments are clear. Our legal framework to which we are committed is a crisp and clear legal framework.”

Rabbi Kanefsky gives this hypotethetical example: “If I were to drive to shul on Shabbat, I don’t, I shouldn’t take my seat and say to the person next to me, ‘The 405 was terrible this morning.’ Everybody knows that I drive. I live 30 miles away.”

“It’s not fair to assume that your Orthodox community can formally officially recognize your identity because that would undermine the structure we live in, even as we know we’re all imperfect, we’re all struggling, we’re all short of the mark (halachah).”

“If any person wants to join an Orthodox shul, they should be embraced. They should be hosted like every other new member at everyone’s homes in the first two months, the rabbi’s home, the president’s home. That person should be brought into committees the person wants to be a part of. They should be a full member of the shul.

“If a lesbian couple were to adopt a child and their desire was that at the baby naming, they be named together as the parents of the child, that would fall under recognition and that’s an unfair expectation of an Orthodox community that it bestow full recognition on a gay or lesbian couple.”

Rabbi Kanefsky says that most people have close friends at shul who they can talk with about anything with. “One of the reasons we belong to a community of any type is to develop friends with whom we share everything. Rabbis are the only people who don’t have these friends.

“Of course someone will share who they are with their friends.”

The rabbi says that there is an age for children to learn about homosexuality and if you go earlier, it just won’t make any sense for them.

The rabbi talks about a junior at a yeshiva “when the Proposition 8 issue cropped up about a year and a half ago, he heard all kinds of things being said, including awful disgusting things, including from faculty members, and he stood alone.”

Rabbi Kanefsky discusses Rabbi Mayer Twersky‘s talk condemning the unofficial YU forum on homosexuality as “a desecration of God’s name”. Rabbi Kanefsky says Rabbi Twersky probably wants to ban discussion of homosexuality in the yeshiva setting and that he “represents the last effort to hold on to an anachronistic standard.”

A minute later, Rabbi Kanefsky says, “I’ve been hearing my own voice and I’ve been hearing an edge in my voice that I don’t associate with myself. I don’t mean that.”

Gregg keeps talking about “my husband and I.” They have a four-year-old daughter.

Rabbi Kanefsky opposed Proposition 8. “If the state is granting a civil right, we ought not to be rallying to withdraw that civil right.”

Rabbi: “I can’t speak for other shuls, but I say with confidence in our shul [Bnai David] there is no reason that sexual orientation has anything to do with receiving an aliyah or leading the tefillah (prayer).”

“I know that many of you recognize the sensitivity and creativity and frankly the guts that Bnai David has on that.”

The room applauds.

I think the rabbi’s wording is slippery. Orientation does not get much consideration in Torah. What about action that defies Torah? Isn’t that what counts in Judaism, not orientation? I am oriented towards all sorts of things that I do not allow myself to do. What about one who is out about living in a homosexual relationship? Why is this different than an Orthodox Jew being open about living in adultery or incest? Adultery, incest and man-on-man sex are all equally forbidden by the Torah (written and oral). Is homosexual sex sin different from other sexual sins? Is there a good reason why we need to be more sensitive about it?

Would Bnai David react identically to one living in a homosexual relationship to one living in another type of sexual relationship that is forbidden by the Torah?

In the three Modern Orthodox shuls in Pico-Robertson (Bnai David-Judea, YICC, Beth Jacob), sexual orientation seems to play no role in determining ritual honors.

Anat Hoffman says the Haredim in Jerusalem have stopped demonstrating against homosexual parades in Jerusalem because they didn’t want to explain to their children what they were protesting against.

Rabbi Kanefsky: “How can you be a religious leader without being engaged in the world? I credit my parents. When everybody on the block wanted to get together to buy that house so that a black family wouldn’t move in, my parents refused to participate.”

John emails: “I think its time there was an outpouring of sympathy on the part of Orthodox congregations for men with the alternative orientation of being into Asian women. How come there were no limmud sessions for that? Think how big that would be.”

My thoughts on this topic.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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