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.

Y.U. first made headlines on gay issues with its graduate schools, which, owing to government funding, were subject to nondiscrimination laws. Forced to allow gay student clubs at the graduate schools in the mid-1990s, then-Y.U. President Norman Lamm was ridiculed by right-wing rabbis across the country. A tape-recording of a Cleveland rabbi's hourlong speech lambasting Lamm became particularly popular among right-wing Yeshiva students, many of whom would revel in declaring, "Lamm is a fag." A few years later, a court order forced the school to allow gay couples the same housing provided to married couples; Y.U.'s response set a precedent for socially conservative organizations looking to comply with nondiscrimination laws: Instead of explicitly allowing gay couples, it opened housing to all pairs of co-dependent individuals.

In both of these instances, Y.U. set a standard for how Orthodox groups would respond when the non-Jewish and non-Orthodox at its nonsectarian graduate schools brought homosexuality to its doorstep. But before long, the issue would come to the surface within the university's Orthodox rabbinical and undergraduate schools.

In 1999, Y.U. rabbinical school graduate Rabbi Steven Greenberg became the first Orthodox-certified rabbi to announce he was gay—a coming-out that made the front page of the Jerusalem Post. When Greenberg came to speak to Y.U. students a few months later, it wasn't at the invitation of any official university group. The event was held in an off-campus apartment, where I joined perhaps 20 young men in attendance. About half were closeted gay men, only three of whom ever came out—long after they'd left the school and, for the most part, after they'd left Orthodoxy as well. A year later, one student rumored to be gay, who had been present at Greenberg's event, ran for student council president as a long-shot candidate. Despite his slim chances, the two mainstream candidates were asked to meet with Y.U. spiritual adviser Rabbi Yosef Blau in his office the night before the election, where they drew lots from his black fedora to see who would remain a presidential candidate and who would drop down to vice president, in order to ensure they didn't split the vote and allow the allegedly-gay student to squeak by to a victory.

Around the same time, Trembling Before G-d, a groundbreaking documentary about gays and lesbians in the Orthodox community, hit theaters and was shown at synagogues. I interviewed the director, Sandi Dubowski, for Y.U.'s school paper, but there was nary a peep in response. A rabbi coming out of the closet, a perhaps-gay student running for student council president, and a widely screened documentary all failed to generate meaningful debate.

Ten years later, attitudes definitely have changed. Yes, response to the panel suggests there are plenty—and probably a very strong majority—in the Orthodox world who think even acknowledging publicly the suffering of gay Orthodox Jews is out-of-bounds. But the massive turnout at the panel and at least some positive statements from those not present—to say nothing of Y.U.'s official acknowledgement and hosting of the event—suggests a critical mass of Orthodox aren't going to ignore the problem completely. In an interesting example of how things have come full-circle, the student who hosted the Greenberg event in his own apartment in 1999 was on the recent panel, and Rabbi Blau, who helped engineer the electoral quashing of the possibly-gay student's candidacy in 2000, was the emcee.

But the change of the past 10 years isn't enough to solve the problem of gay exclusion in Orthodoxy. The whole premise of Orthodoxy's mandated approach to homosexuality is not to relieve the suffering of gays in the Orthodox world by finding ways for them to partner. Instead, it's to keep the law unswerving while its more liberal members simply ask that others learn to acknowledge that gay Orthodox Jews are in pain. And so young Orthodox Jews face a question challenging adherence in a way that no other modern issue presented: Do you believe enough in the necessity for compliance with Leviticus 18:22 that you're willing to see your gay friend or relative suffer?

For those who answer "no," the road ahead is sure to be bumpy: Rabbi Gil Student, one of the most prominent Orthodox bloggers, suggests they'll bring a schism. He's probably right. Simply ignoring gays' activities, while a temporary improvement to their standing in the Orthodox community, isn't a long-term solution. It's telling that many of the gay Orthodox Jews willing to speak publicly of their trials are still young enough to have plenty of unmarried friends. In another 10 years, some of them may simply leave struggling with Orthodoxy behind.

And for those gay Jews and their allies who do leave Orthodoxy, they may have a denomination ready-in-waiting: Conservative Judaism, which split the baby on gays in 2006—could offer an embrace that would seem like a world of endless opportunity to those coming from the relatively confining attitudes of Orthodoxy.

Steven I. Weiss is an award-winning religion journalist and director of original programming and new media at the Jewish Channel.

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