If you think the Christian world has a problem with gay people, you should try orthodox Judaism. For centuries homosexuality has been taboo; it’s not what nice Jewish boys or girls do. The biblical proscription against “men lying with men as though with a woman” (Leviticus 20:13) is considered the very bedrock of Jewish morality. For traditional Judaism marriage is the highest state of social bonding – a true union of body and soul. Despite some odd exceptions in biblical and rabbinical literature, (Jeremiah is told by God to stay single, Ben Azzai, one of the greatest of the Mishnaic teachers, remains a bachelor by choice), even celibacy was frowned upon. Part of this opposition was no doubt based on a response to the cultural environment – pagan in the biblical era, Christian in the rabbinic one. But despite major shifts in sociological contexts, the ban against homosexuality was rigidly enforced throughout the centuries. Whilst in other areas the rabbis often showed great flexibility and understanding, this particular area remained off-limits.
In recent years, however, homosexuality, among even the most Orthodox sectors of Judaism, has become a growing feature of contemporary Jewish life. In both America and Israel – the world’s two largest Jewish communities – it has not been uncommon for rabbis and others to “come out”, often suffering the consequences that such a confession entails. Moreover, reports of homosexual relations between rabbi-teachers and their students have been a regular feature of news items in both communities. In Israel and the US these behaviours have been the subject of a number of feature and documentary films.
Still, it was something of a surprise when, on 22 July, a large group of Orthodox Israeli and American rabbis, teachers, psychologists and community leaders published a “statement of principles on the place of Jews with a homosexual orientation in our community“. The statement, which has some 170 signatories, many of them prominent in their respective communities, took some six months to prepare, undergoing countless revisions. The fact that so many rabbis eventually agreed to issue a joint statement is something a miracle in and of itself. There are no popes in the Modern Orthodox world. Rabbis are respected for their individual learning and their ability to solve current problems in the light of the tradition. For so many authorities to agree to such a radical shift in attitude reflects the seriousness of the issue.
The statement declares:
“All human beings are created in the image of God and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect … Embarrassing, harassing or demeaning someone with a homosexual orientation or same-sex attraction is a violation of Torah prohibitions that embody the deepest values of Judaism.”
Superficially at least this a complete about turn from centuries of deeply embedded prejudices. Neither do the worthy signatories distinguish between “genetic or environmentally generated homosexual behaviours”. Their main message is “our obligation to treat human beings with same-sex attractions and orientations with dignity and respect”. This includes: “affirming the religious right of those with a homosexual orientation to reject therapeutic approaches they reasonably see as useless or dangerous.”
Rabbi Benjamin Lau – one of Israel’s most popular Modern Orthodox rabbis – observes: “Although the document came out only now, it is the product of 10 years’ preparation. Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot in the US and Rabbi Ron Yosef in Israel worked in parallel to bring the statement to fruition. Although it does not herald a change in the religious law – halakha – it is meant to be an opening for a public debate on this very complex, multi-faceted issue. We are calling on all Jewish communities to relate to their gay members in a way of dialogue, not violence.”
This latter reference could refer to an incident in Israel last year where a gay bar in Tel Aviv was attacked – killing two and injuring many more. More recently, an apparently romantic affair between two Haredi men ended in murder and suicide. It is thus of interest that last week’s publication also found itself its way into the Haredi press.
Rabbi Ron Yosef, who is not only a community rabbi, but also a religious judge, would like his fellow gay people to be accepted within the framework of Orthodox law. This has not happened yet but, as Rabbi Lau observes this bold declaration, which allows for individual communities to decide on their own policy towards gay people, “has started the discussion.”
After 3,000 years, it may be time.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010