Editor’s Note: Eshel, an organization that advocates for an Orthodox community that is inclusive of LGBTQ Jews, offered us this piece in honor of National Coming Out Day. Eshel is launching an Orthodox Allies Roundtable. To find out more on how to be an Orthodox ally click here.
I am a Modern Orthodox Jew, the product of a Torah u’Madda (Torah and secular) education. I am not sure what I expected to discover at this first-ever weekend “Shabbaton,” hosted by Eshel, for Orthodox Jewish parents of LGBTQ children last April.
Our youngest daughter “came out” to us as bisexual more than seven years ago and we have guarded the secret between us, our two other daughters, and our son-in-law. We immediately embraced her and told her that we could never love her any less than we do — which is the most you can love anybody. Many years have passed and we have long accepted our daughter for who she is. We worry less about our daughter’s future as the rest of the world outside the Orthodox Jewish community accelerates to accept same sex-relationships. But we still worry how our extended family, community and Jewish world will react when we are “all out.”
Here’s the problem: Our Torah — God-given and True — explicitly forbids male same-sex sexual relationships of a particular sort and although the Torah makes no direct mention of lesbian relationships, the Rabbis have forbidden those as well. So as long as my community and my friends don’t know, I have not had to deal with my “dirty little secret”– the one I know but didn’t articulate before the Eshel retreat.
My secret isn’t my daughter’s sexual orientation. I could not be prouder of my daughter and have no need or desire to keep that a secret from anyone. My secret is that I do not accept the rigid Orthodox view of same sex relationships and I have been embarrassed to share that out loud in my relatively “conservative” Orthodox shul.
I know that humans don’t choose their sexual orientation much in the same way I know that the world is not flat and was not created in six physical days 5773 years ago. I am a doctor by profession. I have lived through the period where doctors thought autism was caused by “refrigerator mothers” who could not attach properly. Despite its patent absurdity, that now- debunked psychiatric hypothesis survived well into the 1970s. We know better nowadays. Various psychiatric narratives also blamed mothers and fathers for “producing” gay children.
Therapy to “cure” same sex attraction has been a disaster in so many ways. Science has progressed, thank God! I try to remember to thank God for revealing to us the amazingly complex laws of His world.
We now know that gender identification and sexuality are primarily biologically determined, likely during a critical period of fetal development. Anyone who still thinks children “choose” to have same sex attraction is ignoring science. Our tradition bends to accommodate new knowledge. The Rambam dealt with this issue in the 12th century when he asserted that we must reconcile scientific knowledge with conflicting Torah passages by reinterpreting scripture as long as the scientific “knowledge” does not contradict basic tenets of the faith.
So many LGBTQ children describe how hard they fought to try to be “normal”. One estimate is that gay children are 8 times more likely than their heterosexual counterparts to attempt suicide. In Israel, nearly 25 percent of teenage suicides occur in LGBTQ children – can any sentient being think that young people deliberately put themselves in this psychologically painful and dangerous position volitionally? Really?
My God and the God of our fathers and mothers, who watches over every human being, created my youngest daughter and one of my nephews with the capacity for same sex attraction. And we are supposed to ignore them or reject them? What are their options? Celibacy? Torah Judaism embraces the inherent value of sexual intimacy in a marriage (even for infertile couples).
My problem, then, is with broadening the interpretation of the pesukim, or verses, that prohibit and label as abominable male–male intercourse of a particular sort – and using those verses to exclude same-sex couples from Orthodox Jewish life.
My Orthodox Jewish roots are deep. If my daughter chooses to leave my faith, that would break my heart. If she chooses to spend it with the Jewish female love of her life in a community that allows her to continue to participate in its shul and celebrate her life milestones within an accepting Orthodox community, my life would be complete. If we teach our LGBTQ children that they must deny their sexuality in order to stay within Orthodoxy, we are literally driving them away. They have no choice in that particular dialectic.
Neither do it. Baruch Hashem, I am God-fearing and the continuity of my father’s faith, a Holocaust survivor, is a core value for me and my family. But if forced to choose between an Orthodoxy that rejects and pushes away my daughter or my father’s faith, I choose this: to bend my father’s faith to embrace his granddaughter. He probably wouldn’t have understood her situation very well. But I am sure that is what he and God actually want; they want all their children to stay in their “tent.”
These and many other thoughts surfaced during the intensely beautiful Eshel weekend I spent with other parents of LGBTQ children, all of whom were struggling within their various flavors of Orthodoxy (haredi to modern). Through a weekend of openness and sharing with parents who love their children no less than I, and hearing their stories of pain and joy, we created a Shabbos of healing. This was a traditional Shabbos with a traditional minyan. We had Torah learning and amazing sessions where we could feel each other’s struggles and hear from some who have dealt with this issue for more than a decade and who shared the joy of the continued Jewish engagement of their LGBTQ children.
I learned with Rabbi Steven Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi and later had the incredible opportunity to speak with him personally. I davened with a new “wholeness” in my heart. Our love for our children fueled our groping for a way to bend our tradition to embrace what we know is true in our hearts. We cried, laughed, and sang together. By the end of our wonderful Shabbos together, we were wishing out loud that all the attendees lived together in the same physical community.
Our precious children were made the way they are by our God and the God of our fathers and mothers. Our Orthodox Jewish God loves his LGBTQ progeny no less than His other children. I am sure of this. This very same God wants us to find a way to reinterpret our pesukim, our rabbinic literature and our tradition today, with our current knowledge of LGBTQ issues. The roots of our tradition extend thousands of years nourishing the eitz chaim, or tree of life, whose living branches grow and extend with each passing day, just as our faith is renewed in our hearts daily. At the Eshel Shabbaton, we parents were joined in a vision of creating the welcoming space in our precious Orthodox tradition in which our beloved LGBTQ children can breathe, thrive and lead Orthodox Jewish lives.