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An Orthodox Pledge of Compassion

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).

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