When I toured the Hillel Center of Brown University recently (as part of my senior year college search), I noticed a sign that pointed to a “gender-neutral bathroom.” When I asked a student about it, I was told that the Hillel wanted to create a community in which everyone, regardless of gender or sexuality, felt comfortable. There was even a Brown Queer Hillel group, allowing for LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, and queer) advocacy within the Hillel framework. I saw similar Jewish-focused gay rights groups on Tufts, Harvard, Brandeis, Yale and other campuses. Upon noticing this, I searched online to see if the American Jewish population as a whole was as supportive as my Hillel experience indicated, and I found a Times of Israel article that placed Jews as the group most supportive of gay marriage in all of the United States, surpassing Catholics, Protestants, Democrats, “liberals,” and even nonreligious citizens. To me, this is a great source of pride, and I am of the opinion that support for the LGBTQ community is natural for the Jewish people, both religiously and culturally.
I am always dismayed, therefore, when I hear a Jewish leader speak against gay rights. Beit Shemesh Mayor Moshe Abutbul’s recent comments suggesting that homosexuals be dealt with by the police or the Health Ministry, undoubtedly an attempt to please the powerful religious right-wing among his constituents, were particularly outrageous, as many human rights activists in Israel have commented. The Times of Israel survey I referenced earlier demonstrates how out of step Abutbul is with mainstream Judaism (at least in the United States). As I will argue below, speaking from my own experience and interpretations, the more commonly held Jewish value of supporting gay rights is linked to and grounded in our tradition.
In one of my favorite Midrashim, Rabbi Yosi bar Chalafta is asked what G-d has been doing since He created the world. He responds by saying that the Lord spends His time making matches. Indeed, bashert, the idea that love is a divine gift and that G-d chooses who falls in love with whom, is an important theme in Judaism. Preventing two people from expressing their love for one another is an affront to G-d’s will. If G-d chose to pair up two men or two women, what right does any human being have to dispute that love?
In addition to the critical Jewish value of love is the value of equality. According to the Torah, all people are created in the image of G-d. Today’s science describes sexuality and gender identity as an immutable characteristic, in other words one that would have been decided by G-d. To denounce someone for being created gay or trans* is, as logic would dictate, equivalent to denouncing the image of G-d and of all humanity. A religious Jew should recognize this and should treat members of the LGBTQ community in accordance to the way they were made: as equals.
I actually first became interested in LGBTQ advocacy when I found myself impassioned by a debate with another boy at my Jewish summer camp, Camp Yavneh (in Northwood, New Hampshire; my experiences there were life-changing). He referred to certain passages in the Torah that prohibit sex between two men, and I did not have any way to respond. Since then, I have explored the text further, and have realized that there is more to it than meets the eye.
While these passages do exist, accepting them as a condemnation of 10% of all humanity is decidedly un-Jewish. At the time of the Jewish wandering in the Sinai, homosexual intercourse was a prominent aspect of pagan worship, so it would have been a reasonable precautionary measure to ban the act altogether (similar to the ban on shaving certain parts of the face that pagans always shaved, resulting in the familiar image of the bearded Jew with payos) to create a stronger distinction between Jews and pagans. However, now that a slide back to idolatrous roots is no longer a threat to Judaism, this particular rule is no longer directly applicable and the overarching themes of bashert and equality can take precedence.
I do not mean to in any way delegitimize the Torah by this argument. On the contrary, I believe that our texts have a great deal to offer. Nevertheless, it is also important to note that, according to the Midrash, G-d was careful to present the Jews with a Torah that they could accept. We are taught that when G-d approached every other nation, He offered them the Torah in such a way that it was impossible for them to accept it, whereas when He offered it to the Jews He pitched it in such a way that we could feasibly adapt our lifestyle to its conditions. Thus it is not because G-d is imperfect but because we are imperfect that the Torah includes certain passages that are no longer relevant.
Furthermore, constant reinterpretation of G-d’s will is a key feature of Jewish religion and culture. The Talmud features long tractates of Gemara to showcase a great variety of rabbinic opinions about the much shorter passages of divinely inspired Mishnah. Abraham, who lobbied G-d not to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, is hailed as a righteous man, while the overly submissive Noah is only the afforded the title of most righteous by the standards of his cruel and tumultuous generation. The very name of the Jewish people, Am Yisrael, means “a nation that wrestles with G-d.” Our tradition constantly screams at us that we have a responsibility to question the bare texts and discern what G-d’s will truly is. No isolated biblical passage, therefore, is any excuse to violate broader Jewish values.
Finally, although it may not be immediately evident to Abutbul, in America it is hard to miss the connection between homophobia and anti-Semitism. The vast majority of anti-gay non-Jews I’ve spoken to also have believed at least some of the basic tenets of anti-Semitism: that we collectively murdered Jesus, that all Jews are wealthy, etc. The leading hate groups of the nation (the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, the Westborough Baptist Church, and others) target both LGBTQ people and Jews alike, and to support one aspect of their campaign against all people different from them is to support their campaign against Jews as well. Every time I have encountered protesters at an LGBTQ-focused event, they have carried crosses; never have I seen a magen david in one of those crowds. As a people who experienced the Holocaust (and it should be noted the Nazis sent homosexuals to concentration camps before they did Jews), the Jewish people has a responsibility to stand up for the oppressed everywhere, and that certainly includes the LGBTQ community. Where one group is targeted, all groups, and particularly Jews, are at risk.
As a product of history, tradition, culture, and religion, Jews have a responsibility to support LGBTQ rights. Even with a careful eye to Jewish law, religious Jews can and should advocate for equality toward everyone. As a whole, Jews seem to be appropriately supportive. Those who, like Abutbul, have not yet accepted this call to uphold the values of our people have no sound basis for their homophobia.
* Trans is an umbrella term that is meant to encompass all people who identify with a gender that is different from their physical sex and/or do not fit the “traditional” gender binary. It is generally followed by an “*” to signal that it is meant to represent a broad range of different gender identities.