“We did not spill the blood of the wayfarer,” the town elders say when bringing the eglah arufah sacrifice and pleading with God for forgiveness. “We made sure to provide companionship for the lonely sojourner in our midst.” After what transpired this past weekend, when some Chareidi rabbis from the Lower East Side publicly denounced the Stanton Street Shul and Sixth Street Community Synagogue for hosting Eshel, one is left wondering whether they could, with a clear conscience, stake the same claim.
Eshel is an organization that provides guidance, resources and comfort to members of the Orthodox LGBTQ community, and to their families. Eshel’s clientele represents the mosaic of Orthodoxy; every permutation of observance is present in its ranks: Modern Orthodox, Ultra Orthodox, Litvaks with ties and wide-brimmed Borsalinos, Beis Yakov graduates with long skirts, Chassidim with peyos and long beards, and everyone else in between.
Members of the Eshel community were guests of the Stanton Street Shul and Sixth Street Community Synagogue this past Shabbos. These two shul communities invited them to spend tefilot and meals together. My own shul also has hosted them. It is a small gesture of recognition and support: a mainstream community welcomes Eshel members and treats them with love, dignity, and acceptance. Instead of celebrating this heartwarming example of hachnasat orchim, the Ultra Orthodox rabbis in the area chose, tragically, to stridently denounce their neighbors.
Our community should celebrate the existence of people who define themselves as gay-Orthodox. It was not very long ago that the gay-Orthodox moniker was an oxymoron. LGBT people left Orthodoxy in droves, rejecting Yiddishkeit completely.
Today that is no longer the case. Many in the LGBT community are embracing Orthodoxy in spite of their sexual orientation. That is reason for celebration. אשרי הדור, blessed is the generation in which the members of the LGBT community find Yiddishkeit meaningful enough to hold onto it in spite of what halakha asks of them.
We in the Orthodox community need to reciprocate. We need to welcome Orthodox LGBT Jews into our shuls and homes, commit ourselves to working as hard as we can to minimize the pain halakha imposes on them, and, most importantly, support them as they traverse this complex and challenging journey.
Being gay and Orthodox sets individuals on a lonely journey of self-discovery. Their bodies tell them one thing and God demands from them something else. Their self-identity is broken. Their emotions are pulling them in one direction while their conscience guides them in the opposite direction. Healing is hard and takes time. Our tzav hasha’a (call of duty) is to accompany them as they navigate this treacherous terrain, not to reject or ostracize them.
This is our modern-day eglah arufah scenario. These Jews, found sojourning in our midst, are on a lonely, existential journey, and our responsibility is to make sure that they are not walking alone. We need to offer them acceptance, not rejection; to be supportive, not dismissive.
The Charedi stridency, is, therefore, wrong and unjustified. The rabbis who condemned the Stanton Street Shul and Sixth Street Community Synagogue for welcoming Eshel are playing politics with dinei nefashot, the laws of preserving life. When people are teetering on the edge, contemplating suicide, and wondering how they will make sense of who they are, we need to welcome and embrace them. Rejecting them is harsh and hurtful.
Halakha has specific guidelines for how to adjudicate such cases. The Chareidi poskim repeatedly make a mockery of those rules. Denouncements and threats of excommunication have lately become de rigueur. Every time they disagree with the way a sensitive Modern Orthodoxy attempts to grapple with the complexities of observance in the 21stcentury, they denounce, condemn, and expel on a whim. In the process they disregard halakha, completely ignoring the procedural laws governing such processes.
Halakha states שמוע בין אחיכם; you do not condemn unless you first have spoken to the accused party. If the Chareidi rabbis of the Lower East Side were unhappy with a particular aspect of the Eshel program, they were required to engage the leaders or Eshel first. They did not. They instead went ahead with the public condemnation, thereby scoring political points – tragically, at the expense of very vulnerable people’s lives.
Eshel’s work is sacred. Their members love Judaism, identify as Orthodox, cherish observance, and, yet, feel marginalized and isolated from their communities. Eshel is committed to undo that marginalization. They also work with shuls to help demystify what it might be like to have a gay man or woman come to shul, be honored with a kibud, and make them feel welcome in our Orthodox community. In no way is Eshel’s mission to change halakha or permit what is forbidden.
If there are aspects of its program that need to be adjusted, its leaders should be apprised of them discreetly and with utmost respect. Our public stance needs to be one of love, acceptance, and understanding. We need to be able to look our LGBT brethren in the eye and tell them: ידינו לא שפכו את הדם הזה ועינינו לא ראו (“Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it”): We are doing our utmost to provide a safe environment in which you can succeed in the herculean task God has set forth in front of you.