How do children learn equality if they’re taught prejudice?

Eli Spitzer (Credit: BBC Panorama: ‘Sex Education: The LGBT Debate in Schools’)
Eli Spitzer (Credit: BBC Panorama: ‘Sex Education: The LGBT Debate in Schools’)

On Monday night’s BBC Panorama, Judith Nemeth from The Values Foundation proclaimed: “There is no way people of faith will say it is OK to be gay, because the Bible says it isn’t.”

She is misreading the text. The Torah states everyone is created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26). It follows from this that God made people the way they are – straight, gay, bisexual, transgender or any other way they may identify. Being LGBTQ isn’t a lifestyle, it is a reality for a percentage of every population, including the Charedi population.

The Torah gives us 613 mitzvos, some of them positive commandments (things we must do) and some of them negative commandments (things we must not do). We must not add new commandments to the Torah (Deuteronomy 4:2). We must keep far away from untruths (Exodus 23:7). We must love our neighbours as we love ourselves (Leviticus 19:18). Mrs Nemeth was no doubt referring to the negative commandment in Leviticus (18:22) that pertains to one specific sex act between males – but this commandment does not refer to orientation or mentioning LGBTQ issues – the verse is read aloud in shul every year, sometimes by bar mitzvah boys.

Judith Nemeth and her compatriots appear to be choosing to zoom in one law – and ignore many others. In attempting to make Jewish law appear black and white, they reject the complex beauty of our heritage.

There will be ambiguity and grey areas, tests and tensions. We must balance the responsibilities that the Torah lays out for us, and use our moral compass and common sense when we feel that these may compete. Where guidance is needed, we are lucky to have strong leadership from the Chief Rabbi.

The Equality Act, the legislation that has led to much of this discussion, bears similar tensions. Religious people have rights as do members of the LGBTQ community. Sometimes it may seem like those rights compete. Neither of those rights exist in a vacuum. As with Jewish law, case law on the act will be debated and contested through a hierarchal system. There may be grey areas, and there may be new situations that need to be worked through with compassion and integrity – not misrepresentation and the willingness to cast gay people aside, while desperately insisting to ‘not be homophobic’.

Eli Spitzer is right. Charedi children don’t know how babies are made. He correctly draws the question back to the problem that Charedi educators are grappling with. The LGBTQ question is a red herring – even if LGBTQ relationships were not described, many of those objecting to SRE would still object. How do you teach SRE when your core belief system involves keeping children ignorant of sex altogether, introducing them to a marriage partner in one brief meeting, agreeing their betrothal and only explaining what the two teenagers have agreed to days before the wedding?

How do you teach about different types of families when you fundamentally believe that different types of families should be shunned? In J v B and The Children, respected Charedi rabonim and safeguarding professionals including a Charedi foster carer, lined up to convince a judge that children having contact with their transgender parent would result in them being denied school places and being ostracised by their friends and family. The judge agreed with them, and the children haven’t seen their parent for years now.

How do you teach about bodily autonomy and boundaries when you believe that manhandling and hitting pupils is a legitimate behaviour modification tool?

We have to start at the beginning. We need to love our neighbours. We need to celebrate a joyful, safe Judaism that rejects extremism and embraces reality.

About the Author
Yehudis Fletcher lives in Manchester with her family. She is a social and political activist with a special interest in safeguarding. She is an Ambassador for JOFA UK.
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