Orthodox Judaism finally begins to face gay rights.

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
Jan. 15 2010 9:58 AM

Do Black Hats Come in Pink?

Orthodox Judaism finally begins to face gay rights.

Countless modern quandaries—from scientific inquiry to women's rights—have failed to rock the Orthodox Jewish boat. But younger Orthodox Jews are pushing gay inclusion to the fore, and for the first time, the sect doesn't have any reasonable answers for its internal liberal critics. If this advocacy for gay inclusion is to succeed, it will have to carve out a new niche that hasn't really existed before: a group that is entirely Orthodox in all ways but one. And overwhelming response to a gay event at one of Orthodoxy's largest institutions last month suggests change is on its way.

The nearest analogue to this battle is the ongoing fight for women's inclusion in Orthodoxy. Not to diminish the meaning of that struggle for those engaged in it, but it seems a stretch to compare the suffering of someone whose religion is keeping them from the pulpit to someone whose religion is keeping them from having a partner.

On the doctrinal front, there has only ever been the need to revisit rabbinic attitudes—and not much halacha, or Jewish law—for women's equality to gain a foothold. The main obstacles to advancing women's issues are vague concerns about societal makeup. But there are no similar doctrinal loopholes for Orthodoxy on the issue of gay inclusion, guaranteeing that the battle for welcoming gays among the Orthodox is a zero-sum game: Either the gay-inclusive Orthodox lose their Orthodoxy in some fundamental way or queer Jews and their allies become lost to the Orthodox.

Liberals attacking conservative Christians' stance on gays are fond of noting that the conservatives are perfectly comfortable eating shellfish, which Leviticus also calls "an abomination." (See the Web site GodHatesShrimp.com.) But Orthodox Jews do follow all the laws of Leviticus (though some have noted that another "abomination"—unethical business dealings—is receiving less condemnation these days than it should). Where more liberal strains of Judaism can reinterpret biblical and Talmudic passages to make them more gay-friendly or ignore later rabbinical rulings, a very large part of what defines Orthodoxy is that it doesn't allow these methods of interpretation. The classic rabbinic formulation that the current generation's scholars are but dwarves on the shoulders of giants is taken quite literally in Orthodoxy; precedent is often wholly binding.

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The only real avenue for those advocating a full life for gays in Orthodoxy is to take one step outside of it—and a separate trend suggests this could happen.

For many years, something new has been brewing in Orthodoxy—"orthopraxy," or adherence to the laws governing practice but not those mandating what one should or perhaps must believe, and evidence suggests orthopraxy is quite common among the Orthodox. The idea behind orthopraxy is that many Orthodox follow the ritual laws out of a sense of familiarity or community—or even a level of belief that compels personal action but not condemnation of others' beliefs—even if they'll condemn others' laxity in practice. When it comes to issues of practice, there's nothing about keeping the Sabbath or avoiding cheeseburgers that is likely to come in conflict with one's conscience. For most orthoprax, such aspects of adherence to ritual laws aren't worth a fight.

But the young Orthodox are showing they are very much willing to rock the boat on gay inclusion, at least to the point of acknowledging gay suffering in their community. A reported 800 Yeshiva University students attempted to cram into a social hall three weeks ago to hear young Orthodox Jews discuss what it's like to be gay. So many were in attendance that, despite plenty taking seats on the floor or standing, more than 100 were reportedly turned away. Following the panel, a leading rabbi at Y.U. spoke out against it, saying that "there should be no Jew identified as having an inclination toward" male-on-male sex, and that it's "a tragedy" when a Jew "can come out of the closet and identify himself as being oriented toward toeivah [abomination]." Numerous other rabbis at the school and elsewhere signed on to letters of protest, and right-wing students are circulating a letter of protest that can be read at the bottom of this post.

These events represent a brimming-over of an issue that Orthodox leadership was able to keep largely contained 10 years ago, when gays in the Orthodox world first made a major push for acceptance. In typical fashion for doctrinal debate in the Orthodox community, most episodes of the gays-in-Orthodoxy battle have taken place at Y.U. In addition to being one of the largest Orthodox institutions, it embraces engagement with the modern world more than most.