By Rabbi Steven Greenberg
A few months ago, a young Orthodox rabbi decided to “come out of the closet,” in a sense, when he publicly identified himself as an “LGBT ally,” referring to lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, founder of Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice group, and a director of the UCLA Hillel, explained that he felt he had been quiet for too long and wanted to say what he felt was the truth.
Not much was made of the rabbi’s statement, most likely because two years ago Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgott and others drafted the “Statement on Homosexuality,” now signed by over 200 Orthodox rabbis and educators, which calls for dignity and respect for gay and lesbian Jews. The statement has shifted thinking in many quarters by making an argument for compassion for LGBT people a non-negotiable starting place.
However, some rabbis felt the document does not go far enough. It does not call for a broad effort to welcome gay people, their partners and their families into Orthodox communities. It does not categorically reject change therapy. It reiterates its unmitigated commitment to normative frames regarding the prohibition of all homosexual sexual expression, and in doing so calls into question the very meaning of the dignity and respect it demands. While the statement intends to end demonization and discourages the forcing of young people into programs to “pray the gay away,” it still leaves Orthodox gay Jews, and especially gay couples and families unsure of where they stand and how they can move forward in their lives.
To be clear, Rabbi Yanklowitz is not offering any halachic solution, per se, to the prohibition against homosexual acts. Still, the simple shift in language from compassion to alliance deserves to be marked.
Empathy is surely better than the aggression that only a decade ago was much more common. The problem is that empathy does not compel any action. As in many circumstances of human tragedy, our hearts may break, but we often feel powerless to prevent or even stop the pain. Compassion of this sort for a gay person is little more than pity.
Alliance, though, is not pity. An ally adopts the struggle, identifies with unfairness of the circumstance and shares in the call for something better. Alliance goes beyond compassion to responsibility. Remarkably, the difference between them appears in the halacha. The fundamental mitzvah of care for the stranger in Jewish law demands that we start with compassion and move toward active alliance.
Maimonides describes the obligation of welcoming the stranger. “Greater is the welcome of guests than receiving the Presence of God.” He adds that accompanying the guest on his journey when he leaves is even greater. The one who fails to walk alongside the stranger in public for a portion of his journey may be guilty of bloodshed. Why bloodshed? Because taking the stranger into your home is act of compassion; vouching for him in the street can save his life.
When I interviewed 20 Orthodox rabbis five years ago about their practice of counsel when gay people come out to them, I discovered that my colleagues were eager to do no harm, but were not sure how to balance that concern with their role as defender of the tradition. They each insisted that celibacy was required by the tradition. I said that I understood their position theoretically. But when I asked if they would tell a gay congregant that God wants of him a life of celibacy, most tried to dodge the question.
I did not judge their responses. I just wanted them to grasp the vulnerability of the young person before them and the emotional havoc they could cause by simply sharing, with no reservations, their halachic convictions.
When asked, I suggested they respond to such a question by saying: “God knows you and loves you as you are. You can only be asked to do the doable. If you cannot be celibate without doing yourself harm, then it will be best for you to find a partner, join a shul and seek a way to make a family. Living a full and religiously alive life as a self-accepting homosexual is better than your walking away from the community forever.
“To be honest, I share your question. I don’t know how the Creator makes people gay and then deprives them of a good life. So, do the best you can and trust in God’s love and understanding.”
I don’t know how many Orthodox rabbis might be comfortable responding in this way to a vulnerable teenager, but among those whom I interviewed, even some of the more conservative of the group, this approach seemed acceptable.
What Rabbi Yanklowitz has done in identifying as an LGBT ally took no small measure of courage. I am confident that once offered as an option, many Orthodox rabbis will want to be known as allies. The fear of being censured by one’s colleagues for such public alliance with gay and lesbian people has to be seen as morally untenable in the face of vulnerable young people and their simple desire for a decent life.
Rabbi Yanklowitz is calling upon the Orthodox community to fulfill Abraham’s vision — to welcome us into congregational life and then to take the next step to walk with us in the public square as allies.
Rabbi Steven Greenberg is a senior teaching fellow at CLAL and a founder and co-director of Eshel, an Orthodox LGBT community support and education organization.