With society’s increasingly tolerant attitudes towards rights for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and those who are changing genders, Modern Orthodox rabbis have been grappling with the role of LGBT Jews within the community in light of halachic proscriptions against homosexual acts.
Most Modern Orthodox rabbis say that homosexual Jews can have any role they want within the faith, and should be treated like any other Jew.
But the questions don’t seem to end there. For LGBT Jews who are religiously observant and want to live halachic lives, the halachic prohibition itself presents a problem. Without answers, they have difficulty maintaining their faith and religiosity.
“There was a long time in which I had a complicated relationship with prayer and with God and with Judaism as a whole because it seemed to me like there wasn’t a place for me in Judaism,” said Shalhevet alumna Jenny Newman ‘11. “I’m queer, which makes it kind of questionable that I should be able to exist according to Jewish law.”
The halacha in question is based on the verse in Vayikra, Chapter 18, verse 22, that says: “You shall not lie down with a male as with a woman: this is an abomination.”
Rabbis at Shalhevet and in the Pico-Robertson community agree that the prohibition seems clear.
“In my opinion, one cannot deny that the Jewish law prohibits homosexual relations,” said Rabbi Kalman Topp of Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills. “A sexual relationship, according to Jewish tradition, needs to be in the context of marriage and is between a man and a woman.”
Shalhevet Talmud teacher Rabbi David Stein differentiated between the Torah prohibition against homosexual acts with being gay, which he said in and of itself is not proscribed.
“It is not prohibited to be gay, but Judaism does articulate a prohibition against certain homosexual acts,” said Rabbi Stein. “There’s nothing really to dispute about the fact that there exists a prohibition against homosexual sexual conduct.”
Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of Bnai David-Judea Congregation said this sets up a tension between competing values.
“As the Orthodox community we are right now caught between two values that are of the utmost importance to us,” said Rabbi Kanefsky. “One value is upholding and respecting the dignity of every member of our community, and the other is upholding and respecting the halachic tradition that we have received.”
“Halacha does not permit homosexual sex, it simply doesn’t,” Rabbi Kanefsky said. “We simply don’t have the authority to undo thousands of years of halachic history and precedent.”
But for religious Jews who find themselves in these categories, this view is not obvious at all. Jenny, a senior at American University who announced being lesbian on Facebook last Oct. 11, sees many different ways to read the verse.
“The Hebrew can actually be interpreted several ways,” said Jenny, who is still observant and considers herself Modern Orthodox. One, she said, is that a man should not lie with another man in the same bed as a woman, at the same temporal location (i.e. threesomes).
“Or it could mean that a man cannot have sex with another man while married,” said Jenny. “That homosexual acts are not excused from the general, much more pressing edict against adultery. That last one seems more logical to me – especially since nothing about queer sexuality is vilified or discussed at any other point.”
That view, it turns out, was also suggested by Rav Judah HaChassid, the 12th-century Italian kabbalist and author of Sefer HaChassid, according to Rabbi Kanefsky.
“In that sense [it] has validity as interpretation, or precedent as interpretation of the prohibition,” he said. “At the same time, it does not change the prohibition.”
This is because of the way that halachic processing works, Rabbi Kanefsky said.
“In halachic processing, the connection between the reason for a law and the actual parameters for the law is not so exact,” said Rabbi Kanefsky. “The prohibition comes in absolute terms even though the reason only applies in certain circumstances.”
Like Jenny, openly gay Rabbi Steven Greenberg of the Shalom Hartman Institute also says Judaism permits homosexuality. He believes the Torah does not commit to a single interpretation of a verse, but rather each verse is viewed in the context of other verses, the situation and human reality.
Rabbi Greenberg uses another verse, Devarim Chapter 27, verse 21, to support his view. That verse states: “Cursed be he who lies with any animal. And all the people shall say, ‘Amen!’”
The chapter contains identical curses for many other prohibited sexual relations, but does not mention homosexuality at all. According to Rabbi Greenberg, this means the text is cursing only violent, nonconsensual sexual acts.
“The reason Torah doesn’t mention sex with a male, in all the curses here, is that … it’s not about violence and violent sexual encounter [that] call[s] forth screaming from the victim,” said Rabbi Greenberg. “What the Torah calls for death, is not for a relationship between two men.”
Rabbi Kanefsky said that interpretation does not change the prohibition either.
“Whereas Rabbi Greenberg certainly has a right, the interpretive right, to suggest that what the Torah is forbidding is violent or nonconsensual homosexual sex, a, it’s not clear that’s true from the context, and b., this hasn’t been the way the verse has been interpreted through thousands of years of interpretation,” Rabbi Kanefsky said.
Despite the differences of opinion on the Halacha, everyone interviewed by the Boiling Point agreed with Jenny that there is room for LGBTs in Judaism, and that they should be treated like everybody else.
“I think that they do have a place in the Orthodox community, in the Jewish world,” said Rabbi Topp. “I would encourage them to observe the other mitzvot.”
Both Rabbi Topp and Rabbi Kanefsky would allow LGBT Jews to be members of their shuls, to be counted in a minyan, to receive aliyot, and to participate in all of the shul’s spiritual activities.
Not only do LGBTs have a place in Judaism, but both Rabbi Topp and Rabbi Kanefsky tell others to treat LGBT with dignity and respect.
“It does not matter who someone is, the obligation to engage with people in a dignified way and work towards their inclusion in the community is independently important,” said Rabbi Kanefsky.
Jenny Newman would like Orthodox communities to go a step further, accepting transgender Jews as well and viewing them as they see themselves.
“We need to accept trans men and women as simply men and women…,” said Jenny. “A person’s religion should be something that brings them love and respect, not just one more arena where they have to experience fear and shame and hide who they are.”
That question seemed to stump the community rabbis. Rabbi Topp declined to comment on whether or not a transgender man could be counted towards a minyan. Rabbi Kanefsky said he didn’t know.
All of the rabbis interviewed by the Boiling Point agreed that the fundamental rules of Judaism apply to all Jews. That included Rabbi Judah Mischel, a frequent guest teacher at Shalhevet who is known as “Rav Judah” at school.
“We don’t have application forms or qualification requirements to be part of the Jewish community,” said Rav Judah in a telephone interview. “A Jew is a Jew. And as far as a person’s lifestyle, orientation or disposition, what they’re struggling with in their private life, Hashem is the Judge.”
The law in Vayikra, Rav Judah said, can sound “very harsh, and it can sound very absolute.”
“We have to find a balance,” he said, “and be empathetic and sensitive and also stay true to our moral code and to what we understand to be divinely established norms.”
Most importantly, the Torah’s laws concerning prohibited sexual relations are not the only laws involved.
“In a healthy, God-centric community there is no room for self-righteousness, ignorance or intolerance,” said Rav Judah. “The fundamental principle of the Torah is v’ahavta lere’echa kamocha — you should love your neighbor as yourself.”
These stories won Second Prize, Boris Smolar Award for Enterprise/Investigative Reporting, among papers with circulation 14,999 and lower in the 2015 Simon Rockower Awards, sponsored by the American Jewish Press Association.