I’m an Orthodox religious Jew. I wind tefillin around my arm every morning, recite a bracha every time I eat or drink (and one afterwards, too), learn Torah daily, keep Shabbat and refuse to take risks in kashrut.
And that’s precisely why I must attend this year’s Jerusalem Pride March.
Last year, on the morning of the march, I saw an obnoxious post on Facebook. Written by a religious Jew, the post asserted that the parade is “ugly” and unwanted. So I penned a response, a plea to my fellow Jerusalemites to be respectful and tolerant of one another. While many people supported me, some insisted on calling homosexuals nasty names and insinuated that they have no place in Jerusalem.
Such comments are, sadly, commonplace. Earlier this week, two prominent Orthodox rabbis referred disparagingly to homosexual people. One called them perverts, both used an incendiary term taken directly from the Biblical verse which bans homosexual relations, to’eva, Hebrew for “abomination”.
As I write this, religious Jews are planning a counter-parade to be held against the supposed to’eva of homosexuality. Their insularity, their lack of understanding and compassion, appalls me. Where are the to’eva protests outside of the restaurant which sells shrimps, situated just meters away from their planned parade? Or against those who are unscrupulous in their business dealing (Proverbs 11:1)? While these are all considered biblical abominations, only LGBT people are targeted.
Let me share a secret with you. When homosexuals see religious people refer to them as a to’eva, they don’t decide that it’s time to undergo hocus pocus “treatments”. They don’t elect to suddenly become attracted to the opposite sex. (Just like I can’t spontaneously decide to become homosexual.) They don’t start believing that parades are abominable and scrap plans to march.
Let me tell you what does happen when religious people use the to’eva word, though: They feel misunderstood and viciously attacked.
That’s not all. Secular people in Israel, and all around the world, take note and are disgusted. They see how homosexuals are treated and are sickened by it. They don’t understand what our religion is about, but are repulsed by the lack of compassion and respect religious Jews have for other human beings. What could be more of a Hilul Hashem, a desecration of G-d’s name, than ridiculing another human being — who we believe is created in G-d’s image — and making them feel despondent and suicidal.
Earlier this week, Rabbi Yigal Levinstein of the Eli pre-military academy, one of the national-religious camp’s leading institutions, called homosexual people “disgusting” and “perverts”. In a heart-wrenching response, Rabbi Benny Lau recounts a chilling story (in Hebrew) here. Two years ago Rabbi Levinstein spoke to a crowd of teens at Himmelfarb, a religious boys high school in Jerusalem. In the course of his lecture, Rabbi Levinstein made a crass joke and compared gays to animals, and was censured by the headmaster, Rabbi Yirmi Stavitksy. (Rabbi Lau was careful to mention that Rabbi Levinstein accepted the criticism and desisted.) But the damage was done. Unnoticed, a single boy slipped out of the room. The dejected boy went out to take his life. Thankfully he was caught and stopped. A year ago, after the murder of Shira Banki z”l, the boy approached his headmaster and said that when he saw a leader of Rabbi Levenstein’s standing, and all that he represents in the religious sphere, talk about him as if he were an animal, he wanted to commit suicide.
This is especially true amongst religious LGBT. Suicide and self-harm risk among LGBT youth increase the more religious they are. One gay friend of mine told me that he has indeed left Orthodoxy. But he feels that Orthodoxy left him first.
Up until last year, I’d never considered going to the march. As far as I was concerned, Jerusalem is a holy city, and the idea of a march featuring lewd behaviour — a misconception — no matter the sexual orientation of the participants, didn’t suit me. It felt insensitive and provocative. But then Shira Banki z”l was murdered. I don’t for a second believe that the actions of one hate-filled man can properly reflect on an entire community, but when I saw religious people refusing to condemn murder, and even justifying the act, I was sickened.
I understand why religious people react to the parade so strongly. Yes, the Torah makes abundantly clear that certain things are considered unacceptable. But that doesn’t give religious people a license to relentlessly belittle, mock, and hurl abuse at people whose sexual orientation is different to our own.
It’s time to show that while we can’t agree on everything, we are united in “Ve’ahavta l’reacha k’mocha” — love your fellow as yourself — and note the Hebrew root reya there, rather than the more common chaver. The word chaver indicates an individual we feel close to. The word reya, however, suggests a disconnect. It’s easy to love our friends. The challenge is to love the people with whom we don’t see an immediate bond.
I’m not trying to change your religious views. I’m religious myself. I too believe that the Torah is the eternal word of G-d. Nevertheless, at a time when so many people are hijacking the name of our religion to attack others, it’s important to show that these people stray from our religion’s loving values.
The Jerusalem pride march is a statement that there are homosexual people all around us. The LGBTQ community is very much part of Jerusalem’s social fabric. It’s time we make space for them and show them that we can live together, despite whatever differences of opinion we may have.
Being Jewish means many things. Standing up for people who are isolated, scared and weak is no less a part of Judaism than keeping Shabbat. It’s time to show the world that we, religious Jews, stand together with our brothers and sisters, no matter their sexual orientation, and demand that they not suffer from persecution, threats and derogatory comments.
Is that too much to ask?
Clarification: I’m informed that the Jerusalem parade is quite unlike its Tel Aviv counterpart. Jerusalem Pride is not about shows of exposed skin and what the religious call pritzut — licentious behaviour in public. Not at all: It is a tame and modest march for tolerance.