An Orthodox Pledge of Compassion

Opinion

By Steven Greenberg

Published August 04, 2010, issue of August 13, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

It has been nearly a decade since the film “Trembling Before G-d” introduced Jewish communities around the globe to the very existence of faithful and observant gay Orthodox Jews and their struggles. While many in the Orthodox world paid attention to the film at the time, since then there has been little or no change regarding basic Orthodox policies toward gay Jews.

That’s why the recent “Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews With a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community” represents such a long-awaited milestone. Drafted by Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot in consultation with other rabbis, the document demands that gay Jews be “treated with dignity and respect,” and condemns harassment and demeaning treatment aimed at them. It also insists that they be “welcomed as full members of the synagogue and school communities.”

Impressively, the document was signed by more than 80 rabbis. Together, the document’s signatories have put forward the best starting point for a productive discussion on issues relating to homosexuality that has ever been advanced by any Orthodox rabbinate.

The document’s sweep confirms what I have observed over the past several years: There is a new mood in the Orthodox community. While even a few years ago the prevailing rhetoric was often caustic and harsh, today most Orthodox rabbis are empathetic, or at least moving in that direction.

Many of the specifics in the document appear to have come directly from the counseling experience of rabbis. The document says that gay people should not be encouraged to marry individuals of the opposite gender. No doubt, the divorces of many couples, and the complaints of women trapped in marriages to gay men, have discouraged rabbis from pushing gay people into straight marriages in the hope that the problems will work themselves out. Similarly, the growth of same-sex families who want a traditional education for their children seems to have prompted the document’s conclusion that children of gay couples should be accepted into Orthodox day schools. While these kinds of conclusions may seem obvious outside the frum world, they are bold innovations for many in the Orthodox community.

Importantly, the statement also supports gay Jews who decide to turn down “change therapy” (more commonly known as “reparative therapy”), citing their right “to reject therapeutic approaches they reasonably see as useless or dangerous.” This is surely a welcome relief to the many young gay Orthodox Jews whose parents, beset with confusion, sadness and fear, insist that their children try such therapies.

However, it must be said that on this account and others the document does not go far enough. I wish the document’s framers had more forthrightly condemned this destructive pseudo-therapy, which can do profound damage to desperate and vulnerable young people. Indeed, it has been rejected by every professional therapeutic organization in the country.

Also, while the document raises the need for sensitivity in regard to the higher risk of suicide among gay teens, it leaves the reader wondering as to the roots of this danger. Research by the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University has conclusively demonstrated that familial rejection, not the condition of being homosexual, is the main factor in suicide attempts. When parents are emotionally accepting of gay teenagers, however they may feel about homosexuality, the incidence of suicide drops to near normal. Taking note of this important finding would have provided valuable guidance to families acutely in need of it.

Perhaps the most fraught issue, however, is the how the document’s implicit demand for lifelong celibacy can be squared with its call for compassion. Can an Orthodox rabbi really share this untempered conviction with a struggling gay person without that person feeling profoundly blighted, hopeless and despondent?

Undoubtedly, rabbis must be responsible to a biblical ruling that has been unchallenged for millennia. But even if they are unable to give permission for same-sex relations, I would hope that rabbis could admit (at the very least in private counsel) to being confounded by the searing conflict that this dilemma produces. While one might think Orthodox discipline cannot admit such brokenness and frustration, in fact there are Orthodox rabbis who have been able to do so.

Leading Orthodox thinker Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo reminds us that God does not impose demands upon human beings that are beyond a person’s capacity. He applies this talmudic principle specifically to this issue: “It is not possible for the Torah to come and ask a person to do something which he is not able to do. Theoretically speaking it would be better for the homosexual to live a life of celibacy. I just would argue one thing — it’s completely impossible. It doesn’t work. The human force of sexuality is so big it can’t be done.”

Regrettably, there were no equivalent acknowledgments in this document.

Yet for all its shortcomings, the rabbis’ statement may well prove pivotal. Until now rabbinic compassion was largely private, shared between rabbis and those who turned to them for help. The more than 80 Orthodox rabbis who signed this document have publicly inaugurated a new communal commitment to compassion, and with it a new sense of human dignity for gay and lesbian Jews.

Until now many gay Orthodox Jews have felt no choice but to leave the communities they love. We are no longer required to be silent or to leave. We can stay and be honest. Different communities will respond in different ways to this call for compassion and human dignity, but there is no doubt that anywhere this document is taken seriously as an opportunity for conversation, people’s lives will get better. For that reason, the rabbis who took up the challenge to bring this consensus to the light of day are to be commended.

Rabbi Steven Greenberg is the senior teaching fellow at CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He is the author of “Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition”( University of Wisconsin Press, 2004).


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.