Jonathan Muskat

LGBTQ Jews and the Modern Orthodox Community

There has been a lot of recent discussion about the integration of members of the LGBTQ community within the broader orthodox community. Just this past Sunday, a group Yeshiva University students, allies and activists marched for LGBTQ equality at YU. Their specific demands included:

  1. A statement from Yeshiva University President Rabbi Ari Berman condemning homophobic rhetoric of students, rabbis, and faculty on campus. Any instance of homophobia will be investigated by the administration.
  2. Events involving LGBTQ+ issues and speakers may not be denied by the Office of Student Life or anyone else on the basis of them being LGBTQ+.
  3. An administrator whose job it is to promote diversity and inclusiveness on campus – just as YU’s Cardozo School of Law has.
  4. YC and Stern orientations must have a session about tolerance and acceptance of LGBTQ+ students, including resources for students identifying with the LGBTQ+ community.
  5. YU students should be allowed to have a Gay-Straight Alliance. It must be clear that it is a GSA.

At the same time that this is occurring at the flagship modern orthodox Yeshiva in the United States, related discussions are taking place within modern orthodox communities throughout the US. Though the particulars may differ – some shuls are being asked by members to publicly wish a Mazal Tov when a child or grandchild gets married to someone of the same gender, while others are being asked to extend family memberships to same gender couples – modern orthodox communities everywhere are grappling with the dissonance between their desire to be inclusive and what they see as challenging halachic realities.

Through my own conversations with parents of LGBTQ young adults, I have come to understand how critical these questions are to the families who feel caught in these crosshairs. My congregants have shared with me their experiences attending an Eshel Shabbaton. They emphasized the need to feel that their families are welcome, and they pushed for sensitivity of word and deed, whenever members of the LGBTQ community are involved. In that regard, I was able to agree with them wholeheartedly. It is my wish to be sensitive to their challenges, and I welcome any practical suggestions that they may have in how to do so.

Some congregants have shared with me the position of Rabbi Steven Greenberg, founding director of Eshel. Rabbi Greenberg believes that homosexual relations may not be forbidden, based on the belief that God is good and would not prohibit such a basic human need or desire. In that context, Rabbi Greenberg re-reads the prohibition of homosexual relations to apply only to heterosexuals but not to homosexuals. Here is where I had to disagree. I ultimately cannot accept Rabbi Greenberg’s theological position.

It seems to me that this is the case for many leaders and members of the modern orthodox community today. Our humanity begs for sensitivity and inclusion, while our commitment to the halachic system sets up certain unbreachable limitations. Working within this space of dissonance, I believe there are four potential broad areas of discussion between the modern orthodox Rabbinic community and modern orthodox LGBTQ Jews who wish to remain community members.

The first issue is discrimination against and bullying of LGBTQ individuals and the use of homophobic rhetoric. Opposing this in the strongest possible terms is something upon which hopefully we can all agree since kavod habriyot, respect for every human being, is a primary Torah value. There is no doubt that much work needs to be done in this area, but this is something that must happen. I believe that the Rabbinic establishment in our community is, as a whole, serious about making significant improvements in this area. We must make the orthodox Jewish community a safer place for LGBTQ individuals, with regard to the way we speak and the way we act. “The Wellbeing of LGBT+ Pupils: A Guide for Orthodox Jewish Schools,” which was produced by England’s Chief Rabbi Mirvis to reduce harm to LGBTQ Jews across the Orthodox Jewish community in England, can be a helpful resource in this regard.

The second issue is whether the prohibition of homosexual relations can be understood to apply only to heterosexuals, and not to homosexual individuals. I have heard two arguments in support of this position. First, as mentioned above, God is good and would not prohibit such a basic human need or desire. God could not have meant for homosexual individuals to remain alone. Second, perhaps the Biblical prohibition on homosexual relations only applies to one who voluntarily chooses a homosexual relationship. However, if one’s homosexuality is not a choice and he can only experience intimacy with another man, perhaps he is exempt from the prohibition based on the principle of ones rachmana patreh, that the Torah does not hold one accountable for an involuntary act.

My personal belief is that neither of these arguments pass halachic rigor, and that our Rabbinic leaders will never accept them. Why God would prohibit such a basic human need or desire for a gay person is one of the greatest theological challenges that we face today. At the same time, nowhere is there any precedent to then argue that the prohibition of homosexual behavior does not exist in this instance. Additionally, there is no precedent to interpret the principle of ones rachmana patreh to allow someone prima facie to engage in otherwise forbidden behavior because of his sexual orientation.

However, maintaining that homosexual relations is a sin does not necessarily preclude a member of the LGBTQ community from being part of an orthodox community. First of all, halacha doesn’t prohibit a sexual orientation, only homosexual relations. Further, even those who engage in homosexual relationships should not be excluded from being a member of the orthodox community. Most shuls, for example, permit Jews who are public Shabbat violators to be part of their shul community knowing full well that they publicly sin.

The third issue is whether the Rabbinic establishment can accept and celebrate same gender couples on the basis that we are only accepting the fact that these two individuals have found companionship and love, and are not assuming anything about what the couple is doing in their bedroom. Some would argue that we should follow the dictate in Pirkei Avot that “hevai dan et kol ha’adam l’chaf zechut” or “we should judge everyone favorably.” I don’t find this argument convincing, as many commentaries explain that this dictate applies in a situation when we truly don’t know one way or the other if a person is committing a sin or not. However, most people would agree that it is a fair assumption that a same gender couple that lives together or gets married does so with the intent of having a physical relationship with each other. (At the very least, celebrating such a marriage would cloud the message that LGBTQ relationships are in fact halachically problematic, which I will discuss shortly.) Furthermore, I don’t believe that the LGBTQ community will ultimately be satisfied with this approach. By its nature, this approach asks LGBTQ couples to commit to a level of secrecy about their relationships that is not asked of heterosexual couples. This seems in conflict with what many LGBTQ Jews have expressed as their desire to be accepted for who they are, namely as individuals who are completely Torah observant Jews with the exception of this one issue. They want to be honest about who they are and they want to be accepted.

The fourth issue is whether there is a way to openly support LGBTQ Jews so that they feel comfortable coming out, without granting legitimacy to forbidden sexual relations. This process of self-acceptance is critical for mental health and wellbeing, and in the reverse, self-hatred is so damaging and even life threatening. Are there ways that we can facilitate a healthy self-image for LGBTQ Jews?

To this end, some suggest that our community should hold school events with LGBTQ speakers or host Gay-Straight Alliance clubs, wish a mazal tov to a couple on their engagement or wedding or even permit a gay couple to have a shul family membership. I think that there is no question that these activities would certainly contribute to the mental health and well-being of members of the LGBTQ community and may help them find a place within the orthodox community.

However, it is hard to deny that these activities would also cloud the message that LGBTQ relationships are in fact halachically problematic. It is true shuls have no problem wishing a Mazal Tov to a couple that is about to get married even if it is known that the couple will not observe the laws of nidda. On the other hand, the same shuls would not wish a Mazal Tov to an intermarrying couple on their upcoming wedding. Where then, lies the distinction? Presumably, we believe that wishing a mazal tov in the former case will not encourage this couple or others not to observe the nidda laws. However, we are concerned that wishing a mazal tov in the latter case may encourage this couple or others to intermarry, or it may contribute to a growing religious apathy with regard to the sin of intermarriage.

Perhaps the reason for the distinction between these two cases is simply a question of public perception. And perhaps with time, public perception can change. As an example of this, I have sometimes told people who asked me about attending a wedding ceremony of an intermarried couple that if there is tremendous pressure to attend, the individual can go after the ceremony and wish congratulations to the couple. However, I have never told an individual that he can attend the ceremony. Recently though, a Posek told me that under some circumstances if there is significant family pressure, one may attend the wedding ceremony itself for a variety of reasons although it is certainly far from the ideal. While this Posek would certainly not allow a public mazal tov to celebrate an intermarriage, there has been a shift over time with regard to how we treat intermarried couples, despite the concern of legitimizing this forbidden behavior. Similarly, I wonder if our treatment of LGBTQ couples will evolve to a degree with time and in new contexts, as our communities and the world as a whole changes.

In my mind, whether LGBTQ Jews can find a home in the orthodox community will depend on this fourth issue, i.e., whether we can create a supportive home for them in the orthodox community without granting legitimacy to acts that are forbidden. In the next chapter of this challenge, after the battles against homophobia and discrimination have been won, the conversation will move to acceptance and inclusion. How to facilitate it, and when there must be limits. As LGBTQ Jews express their wishes that their relationships be accepted by their communities, I fear there isn’t a creative way to make that work. I worry we will reach the end of the line, where there isn’t any more flexibility that the religious establishment can give.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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