Going back thousands of years, Jewish tradition teaches us the concept of “michutz lamachane,” literally outside the camp. In the Torah (Vayikra 13:46), this term refers to leprous Jews, who were compelled to leave the main camping grounds because they were “impure.”
Over the centuries, the term has been colloquially expanded to refer to individuals or groups that are viewed as “unacceptable” or “unworthy” of being welcomed within the broader Orthodox Jewish community. As we know all too well, we live in times where our Jewish world, and certainly the Israeli community, is suffering from a pandemic of divisiveness and intolerance.
While there are indeed halakhically acceptable and even commendable circumstances when we can legitimately banish Jews from our midst — the example of the stubborn get-refuser or abusive parent/spouse is an all too common one in our society — on other occasions, the blanket banishment of people we view as “different” or who are perceived as sinners is an action which is completely antithetical to core Jewish values.
And herein I am specifically referring to gay and lesbian Jews. I have therefore attempted to outline guidelines for what we as halakha-abiding Jews must do, and, perhaps more importantly, must avoid doing, in order to ensure that our fellow Jews feel safe, valued, and at home in the Orthodox community.
I want to emphasize that my starting point of the article is that homosexual anal sex is an act which can in no way be condoned by halakha and is strictly forbidden. Yet, as educators and parents, we know that with each passing year, greater numbers of gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews are voicing their desire to be remain part of our Orthodox Jewish community – and their peers and loved ones are standing by their side.
The question which must be asked is how we respond to the fact that there are no small number of Jews living within our midst who are both gay and religiously observant.
Ignoring this question is irresponsible — we have created a suffocating environment that not only prevents gay Orthodox Jews from experiencing spiritual fullness, but also one that fosters low self-esteem, loneliness, fear, depression, self-harm, and, most tragically, death by suicide — and it is also contrary to Jewish values. I would humbly argue that contrary to the rhetoric and actions displayed by many among our leadership in recent decades, it is time for an intentional, joint change of tone — one that retains, holds on to gay and lesbian Jews who wish to be part of the fabric of Orthodox Jewish communal life.
There is no shortage of halakhic precedent to support the assertion that even Jews who we think may act in ways that diverge from a complete halakhically traditional lifestyle deserve to feel at home within the Orthodox Jewish community.
While we all understand that an active gay/lesbian lifestyle is inconsistent with most understandings of Jewish values that promote traditional family building, we must also appreciate that those who don’t act completely in that way still deserve a place at the extended Jewish table.
My intent therefore is not, in any way, to “change” the halakhic approach.
Indeed, normative halakha as advanced by Orthodox Jewry allows for the formulation of a new world view on contemporary issues through the prism of its laws and values.
Therefore, all who believe that love of our fellow Jews (amongst other precepts mentioned in the article is of paramount value, must recognize that this ideal extends not only to those who think and act like us, but indeed to every Jew who desires to be accepted within our community.
This plea, which is elaborated upon in the article delineating the very extensive halakhic sources that advocate such acceptance, is one of the most critical issues for Orthodox Jewry in the modern era. As much as some in our community might wish to ignore the large number of gays and lesbians within our midst, it is a reality that cannot – and should not – simply be pushed aside. As a community, we have the capacity to distinguish between inclusion and approval. Can we really justify a reality in which the incredible personal challenges that gay and lesbian Jews, along with their parents and siblings, are facing are only compounded by the realization that they will never be accepted by their fellow Jews?
In my decades of serving as a rabbi and educator, I have heard too often the heartfelt cries of countless students, couples, and families of loved ones who are searching for their place in the Orthodox Jewish community. More than anything, these Jews want to be seen and recognized for who they are, bearing an identity not of their choosing, without fear of being shunned by teachers, rabbis, peers, community members, and sometimes even their own families. The focus of the essay is what the Orthodox community may do and ought to do, in light of our unwavering commitment to halakha and to Torah values.
Particularly at this moment, when our world and our Jewish nation seem to be steeped in so much tension and division, this is an opportunity that can only strengthen our community. In an age when so many of our young people are losing their interest in observance, can there be anything more blessedly exciting than young people seeking ways to remain Orthodox? I have met gay and lesbian students who sacrifice professionally to daven with a minyan, observe mitzvot, and learn and teach Torah like any other God-fearing person. Are these really the people we wish to push away and lock out of the Torah life that they hold so dear?
These are our children, our sisters and brothers, our classmates and fellow congregants who are searching for their place within the machane (camp) of Orthodox Jewish society.
If we are truly committed to the continuity of Jewish life and all that the Torah expects of us, we are charged to ensure every Jew feels welcome among us — for each of them is a part of us.