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The Big Tent

As the first-ever convening of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered Jews got underway in California at the tail end of June, conference funder and philanthropist Lynn Schusterman threw down the gauntlet — in her Tulsa, Oklahoma way, of course. She’s too polite and Southern to pick a real physical fight, but her words were plenty provocative.

To promote LGBT inclusion and equality within Jewish life, she wrote in a column distributed by JTA, her family foundations — giving away tens of millions every year — “will only consider funding organizations that have non-discrimination policies covering both sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.”

Then she went a step further and asked “all Jewish organizations to join our foundation in adopting non-discrimination hiring policies that specifically mention sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.” And: “We are also challenging donors to join us in holding organizations accountable for doing so.”

In a follow-up interview, Schusterman said this was a natural extension of her personal experiences with traumatized closeted gay people, and her belief that Jewish values mandate this kind of diversity. “I believe we have to have a big tent,” she said.

But how big?

That was the question posed by Nathan Diament, director of the Institute for Public Affairs of the Orthodox Union, and it’s a fair one. His concern that Jewish federations around the country will suddenly stop funding Orthodox day schools if they don’t have policies guaranteeing rights for transgendered teachers is slightly overblown. The federation world doesn’t move that fast.

But Diament’s deeper point is that traditional, halachic Judaism does not condone homosexual behavior, and therefore its institutions could not adopt policies that recognized sexual orientation as a protected status akin to race, ethnicity or gender. Agree or disagree with that interpretation of Jewish law, or believe (as we do) that it is superseded by a more modern imperative — it ought to be respected.

If the tent is big enough to include Jews of varying sexual orientations and identities, shouldn’t it also be big enough to shelter those who hew to more traditional norms?

These questions inevitably go beyond LGBT inclusion. In our embrace of pluralism, who is in the welcoming circle and who is not? Where are the parameters drawn — around women’s issues or political positions, or should they be drawn around the most radioactive topic of the day, views on Israel? If one philanthropist can require organizations to adopt policies regarding LGBT Jews, can another philanthropist insist on only funding efforts that promote a certain kind of Zionism? Who gets to decide what is an essential Jewish value, or what is so outside the mainstream — be it anti-Zionism or anti-gay rights — as to be unacceptable?

That these questions are difficult to answer does not diminish their importance. Schusterman and Diament deserve thanks for engaging the issue; our columnist Jay Michaelson approaches it from a different, equally thoughtful angle elsewhere on these pages in his discussion on the choices between Zionism and Peoplehood.

“How goodly are your tents…” Balaam proclaimed in a recent Torah portion, leaving us to grapple with whether we want a good tent, or a big one.

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