THE saddest part about the uproar which plagued Rabbi Steven Greenberg’s recent Australian visit was that the substance of conversation that so desperately needs to be had within the heart of the Orthodox community never really got off the ground, writes Rabbi Yaakov Glasman.
The critical question that needs to be asked of the religious community is how do we respond to a 16-year-old who comes out of the closet? Do they have a place in our community? Will they be judged because of their sexuality? Will the community understand what they’re going through? It’s high time the Orthodox rabbinate led the way in providing clear and unequivocal answers to these questions.
Having counselled gay Orthodox youth for some years, I can state with absolute conviction that their struggles are very real and often very painful. In addition to significant mental health issues and social stigma born out of decades of prejudice and bigotry, gays and lesbians within the religious community are burdened with the deeply confronting theological challenge of a Divine system of laws forbidding from them the form of intimacy they desire.
It’s easy for rabbis to stand at the pulpit preaching the immutable word of God. But when you’re sitting in the lounge room of a religious family struggling to come to terms with the sexuality of their son, daughter, brother or sister, rabbis must be guided not only by Leviticus 18:22 but more so by Leviticus 19:18 – “Thou shalt love thy fellow as thyself”.
As an Orthodox rabbi, I cannot tell a gay teenager that sex between males is permitted, because it is not. But I can and do tell them that if they choose not, or feel unable, to adhere to this one commandment they are no less loved in the eyes of God than I am. God knows we’ve all transgressed a multitude of His commandments and there is not a single person reading this article who has the moral authority to stand in judgement of someone else.
I would much prefer seeing this young man remain a part of his community rather than leaving it for good. I want to see him attend shiurim, affix a mezuzah on his door, observe the Shabbat, eat kosher and focus on 612 mitzvot which prove far less challenging for him, instead of perpetually beating himself up over the one with which he struggles.
I once asked a senior colleague what he’d say to a gay teen in his community. He responded that he’d encourage the man to marry a woman as per the biblical commandment. Disturbed by his response, I asked if he’d be willing to offer his daughter’s hand in marriage to this man. To his credit, he retracted his response and ultimately reassessed his position altogether.
The rabbinate cannot properly address this issue until and unless it is willing to understand and genuinely appreciate what these kids are going through. When they come to the realisation they are gay and living in a community for whom this topic is so challenging, they often feel scared, confused and deeply fearful of rejection by the very family who are supposed to be their loving support base.
We need to strip this issue away from the political football it has become. We need to open our minds and hearts to a group within our community who are by far among the most vulnerable. I am not suggesting for a moment that the conversation within Orthodoxy is easy to navigate. But what I am absolutely certain of is that before entering this space we must leave our prejudices and hang-ups at the door. What must lie at the heart of this conversation is basic human dignity and sensitivity towards those for whom God has given a different path. We must respond not with religious dogma but with deep compassion, genuine empathy and unconditional embrace. We need them to know they are loved and supported as they are. They are God’s children. They are our sons and daughters. They are our brothers and sisters. They are us.
Rabbi Yaakov Glasman is president of the Rabbinical Council of Australia and New Zealand.