Bridging the Orthodox-LGBT+ divide

Rabbi Benjamin Elton, pictured at his inauguration in 2015, hosted a Shabbat dinner for the LGBT+ community at The Great Synagogue. Photo: Giselle Haber Photography

LORD Jakobovits once told a story about being asked to write an article for The Times on the Jewish attitude to homosexuality.

He was very reluctant to do so because it is almost impossible to write something that does not offend, alienate or outrage someone, so he told the editor he was no expert on the subject, and he should find another writer.

But, out of curiosity, Lord Jakobovits decided to look up the essay in the Encyclopedia Judaica to see what they had to say on the subject.

He scanned down to the bottom to see who the author was, and found it was none other than himself!

I am much less expert than Lord Jakobovits, but I find myself in the position of writing an article on this very subject, or rather the broader issue of Orthodox interaction with LGBT+ people and communities. This is, frankly, an uncomfortable position to be in.

I have friends and congregants who identify with one or more aspects of LGBT+. I do not want them to read anything I write and become estranged from me, or more seriously from Judaism. At the same time, I am committed to the words of the Torah and the halachah as it has been established.

So what can I say? I am tempted to invoke the Fifth Amendment, or quote Ludwig Wittgenstein (who happened to be a gay Jew): “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” And yet, this a pressing contemporary issue and an Orthodox position must be set out, ideally with moderation and empathy.

I used to think that the greatest challenge to Orthodoxy was the contemporary insistence on equality. According to the zeitgeist men and women must be treated equally, and yet Orthodox Judaism does not allocate the same roles to the genders.

It is now established in Australian law that men who wish to marry men, or women who wish to marry women, must be accorded the same rights as those who wish to marry someone of the opposite sex, yet halachah as it exists today only recognises marriage as being between one man and one woman, and that cannot change.

The campaign for same sex marriage used the slogan ‘love is love’, which is a perfect statement of 21st century egalitarianism. Orthodox Judaism might agree that all love is equal, and I would celebrate any two people in a loving, respectful relationship, but it cannot accept that all sexual behaviours are acceptable, whether they are expressed between two people of the same gender, two people not married to each other, a Jew and a non-Jew or a cohen and a divorcee.

The challenge of equality has been compounded by the focus on identity. In this more recent phenomenon, each person is to be accorded the right to define for themselves their sexuality and gender. A person can determine that they are cisgendered, transsexual, or gender queer, or non-binary. They can identify as straight, gay, bisexual or pansexual.

Orthodox Judaism either does not recognise some of these categories, or disapproves of them. So how can Orthodoxy talk to the LGBT+ community without insulting its members?

A first attempt was made, that is still used regularly, and which I have used myself. It makes the point that most Orthodox communities no longer insist on perfect fidelity to halachah as the ticket of entry. Rabbis will say ‘if you drive to shule you are welcome, and if you are gay you are welcome’.

That approach was progress, but I think it is still limited. Why do we have to begin with an assertion of sinfulness? We don’t do that with any other group. No one talks about the sins of the drivers when we include them. In which case, why do we have to talk about the sins of the LGBT+ community?

In each instance the position of the halachah is well known enough not to need endless restating. Where can we go from here? I think a model could be the Shabbat dinner for the wider LGBT+ communities organised by the Board of Deputies and hosted by The Great Synagogue last year.

It was wonderful event, aimed primarily at hosting non-Jews at a synagogue and Friday night dinner. There was a large turn-out and we received very warm feedback from our guests. No one challenged our approach to halachah, no one urged us to change our stance.

They could easily have decided only to engage with the Emanuel Synagogue, where same sex marriages are celebrated, but they chose to come to an Orthodox synagogue. There was respect for who we are, combined with a desire to make relationships on a personal level. It seems to me the very least we can do is return the favour.

We in Orthodoxy can understand that those from the LGBT+ communities have a different perspective on some issues, we can acknowledge that without harping on about it. Instead we can engage in the more important business of creating personal bonds.

When people come to shule they should be seen as individuals and included without further fuss. I would lay money that I will never be asked to perform a same sex wedding. Everyone knows I couldn’t do that, and no one wants to embarrass themselves or me. We have reached a stage in which almost everyone can and wants to be gracious towards each other. In that context there should not be tension, animosity or judgement.

To some extent that will depend on supporting each other’s civil rights, my right not to marry a same sex couple, and that couple’s right to be married in civil law, should each be respected by the other. With that sting removed, there is nothing standing in the way of excellent relations.

I believe we are now well-placed to move beyond the old models of Orthodox-LGBT+ interactions, of either tension or inclusion tempered by a heavy-handed and repeated assertion of the halachah.

We can move to a new relationship based on meeting people as individuals, a mutual understanding that we sincerely take different positions, and a shared commitment to build warm personal relationships.