By Rabbi Steven Greenberg
The holidays are over. Through the fasting and food, the succession of pageant, discomfort, reconciliation and exultation, a single moment continues to stands out. Every year for more than 30 years I have found the Yom Kippur afternoon service Torah reading unnerving — and this year I did not.
Among the verses from Leviticus about incest, adultery and bestiality read at Mincha, there is a single verse that every year would still send a chill down my spine. “And with a male you shall not lie the lyings of a woman, it is an abomination.” Hearing it would bring back my own memories of pain, huddled in a corner of the shul sobbing with my talit over my head. On Yom Kippur especially, the verse would bring to mind the many vulnerable and frightened gay teenagers hearing it.
This year I felt a new sense of resilience and hope born of a broader cultural shift. A few months ago the Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act, marking the end of a cultural accusation and the beginning of a new conversation in America, and in my Orthodox community as well.
This year, the leading American Orthodox rabbinic organization, the Rabbinic Council of America (RCA), finally rejected reparative therapy. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion, urged the Orthodox world to tone down its strident rhetoric on homosexuality. A young Orthodox rabbi, Shmuly Yanklowitz, publicly identified himself as an LGBT ally, and Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of Los Angeles wrote that, given that homosexuality is likely a “feature of the human condition,” gay people “should not any longer have to pay the psychological, emotional and even physical price for our theological comfort.”
These shifts have not occurred in a vacuum. Gay Jews have been capturing the attention of the Orthodox community by their courage. An openly gay student, Amram Altzman, successfully pressed Ramaz Yeshivah High School to support his bid for a club that serves as the school’s GSA (gay-straight alliance). Gidon Feen, a student at theCooper Yeshiva of Memphis, publicly came out of the closet at his graduation after party.
In the past coming out meant leaving the Orthodox community, or at the very least, not making your circumstances a topic of conversation. Your family might have you home for holidays, but not with your partner; you might be welcome to your rabbi’s house for Shabbat meals, as long as you share nothing about your life. More and more, young people are asking family members for both honest communication and loving embrace. They are feeling that it is their right to stay within Orthodox communities and be open about who they are, and they are seeking rabbis and communities that will avail them of that right.
But what is especially different this year is that our allies are changing the face of the Orthodox world.
Gay people are roughly, by conservative estimates, 5 percent of any population. If every gay person has five relatives who might be ready to speak up for him or her, the force for change grows exponentially to 30 percent. Add five friends and the number grows to more than half. For this reason, allies of all sorts are important. Supportive straight friends are key to high school students, making coming out a much less harrowing ordeal. Gavriel Goldstein, a straight friend who helped Gidon through the coming out process, wrote about it in a touching piece that he posted on his blog
(https://thoughtsofajewishteenager.blogspot.com/2013/06/coming-out-causing-change.html). When siblings move through embarrassment and confusion to alliance, they can be a powerful source of support and encouragement. When parents get over their own fear and guilt and recognize their kids for who they are, they become compelling forces for pragmatic change.
Eshel, a national Orthodox LGBT support education organization that I helped to found, ran a conference for Orthodox parents of LGBT children in April this year. It was a moving and transformative event that gave them courage. One parent walked out of shul when his rabbi began a sharply worded sermon against the Boy Scouts of America for their “capitulation to rising gay tolerance.” To his surprise, his protest was taken up by five of his friends who joined him in this expression of frustration.
Another attending couple, Kenneth and Jeannie Prager, got permission from their Orthodox rabbi to lead an hour and a half discussion on their experience of being parents of a lesbian daughter. As a result an ad hoc group of members formed to move the shul towards a clearer policy of welcome.
While it is the rabbi’s job to determine halacha, the role of allies is to place before the rabbi the human elements that hang in the balance. A mother can explain that the rabbi’s rejection of her eldest son is destroying the religious life of her younger two sons, who no longer have faith in a tradition that is actively harming their big brother. What allies of all sorts can do is call us all to fully bear our responsibility for the well-being of the LGBT kids who have been erased, if not deeply wounded, in Orthodox institutions that can and should do better.
What made listening to the afternoon Torah reading this past Yom Kippur very different was a growing feeling that the work of the past decade has brought us to a tipping point, not with regard to halacha, per se, but with regard to the young people who are just beginning to navigate being gay in the Orthodox world, and who will no longer assume that these two identities are utterly incompatible.
In the words of Rabbi Kanefsky, “The reality of sexual orientation can and should bring us to a place in which we can accept our friends and children and siblings for who they are, grant them the dignity and respect that any person deserves, and love them as our own.” n
Rabbi Steven Greenberg is a co-director of Eshel, an organization working toward the integration of Orthodox LGBT Jews into their families and communities. Eshel is launching the Orthodox Allies Roundtable (OAR) to mobilize family members and friends to respectfully urge their religious leaders to be responsible to LGBT people (eshelonline.org).