Forget Covid, climate change, Corbyn, Trump or the other contemporary issues facing us. For Charedi Rabbis in the UK one big issue is the attempt by the government to enforce so called ‘British values’ in the schools of this country, including those in the Charedi community. Rav Zimmerman, one of the Charedi community’s leading rabbis, described it as the biggest threat to the community since 1290 which, for the uninformed, was the year that Edward I expelled all the Jews from England.
The issue is that recent legislation has required that primary school pupils (years 1-6) be taught relationship education and secondary school pupils (years 7 upwards) be taught sex and relationship education. Included in this, is education about same sex relationships. The regulations expressly state that faith schools may implement them in a way, appropriate to the tenets of their faith and in a way they consider to be age appropriate. The Chief Inspector of Education Amanda Spielman believes in a form of ‘muscular liberalism’ which means enforcing the rules in a way she considers appropriate, even if it is opposed to the ethos of the faith schools, and even if it is stricter than the regulations themselves require.
The Charedi concern is understandable. All the Abrahamic faiths are homophobic but it is probably fair to say that Judaism is no less strict than the others. The Torah describes sex between males as an abomination requiring the death penalty. The Talmud extends the prohibition but not the penalty to women. Codes of Jewish law down the ages repeat the prohibition. Even as recently as 1973 the article in the Encyclopaedia Judaica on the subject of homosexuality written by the former Chief Rabbi, Lord Jakobovitz compared it to incest and adultery adding for good measure that many Poskim decisors make little mention of it as it was practically unknown in Jewish communities.
It is true that in Charedi communities, openly gay couples must be extremely rare, if not unknown. Why therefore, say their leaders, should schoolchildren, at a young and impressionable age, be taught about life styles that have nothing to do with them and which they may never encounter. If the purpose of the legislation is to make children tolerant surely this can be done in a gentler way. As a Charedi Rabbi proudly recounted to me, his grandson when questioned by an Inspector about homosexuality knew the correct answer ‘it is an abomination but we are tolerant’.
The purpose of sex education, however, is not only to foster tolerance of other people’s sexuality but also to enable young adolescents to come to terms with their own. The traditional view is that gay behaviour is voluntary- the result of lack of control rather like, as Lord Jakobovits argued. People who know homosexuals however know that their orientation is not the result of debauched self-indulgence. Many of them undergo terrible torment before they accept the nature of their sexual orientation. Conversion therapy, the attempt to change homosexuals into heterosexuals, is widely acknowledged to be ineffective and is banned in many (unfortunately not all) advanced countries. Of course in many traditional societies, where homosexuality is prohibited, it may appear to be rare, but that is because it has been driven underground, not because it does not exist.
This recognition lies behind the huge change, we have seen in our lifetimes. In the early 1960s, when I was in high school, homosexual acts between males of any age and however consensual were criminal. One of this country’s greatest heroes whose image is on the new fifty pound note was driven to suicide by persecution over his sexuality. Things have changed. Today in the UK (though not in Israel )gay marriage is legal and the Equality Act makes discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation unlawful.
We do not know for certain, the proportion of the population, male or female, that is homosexual. The great pioneering studies by Alfred Kinsey concluded that 10% of the population had had homosexual experiences during their lifetime. Kinsey’s studies are highly controversial and more recent studies of how people self-describe suggest rates of homosexuality of between 1.5 and 3%. These rates appear roughly consistent across the world. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that rates of homosexuality vary among different ethnic groups or are any lower among people brought up in more conservative backgrounds. The irony is that one of the countries, with slightly higher rates than average, is Israel, despite the strong Jewish cultural and religious hostility to homosexuality.
Looking at Jewish schools in the UK, there were in 2017 more than 35,000 children in such schools and more than 19,000 in strictly orthodox ie, Charedi schools. This latter figure is believed to be increasing by about 4% p.a. Applying our figures means that in the Charedi schools there are more than three hundred children, in fact, very probably, more than four hundred children whose sexual orientation is to their own gender. Adolescence is an exciting time in a person’s life but it is also very challenging, when children, often without guidance, have to get used to the changes happening to their own bodies and to the emergence of their sexuality. For a child growing up in a conservative community with an orientation described as an abomination must be horrendously challenging. When controversy erupted recently, as it does at regular intervals over this issue, I was advised by a worker in the community that a number of young people in the Charedi community had suicidal feelings. I was sceptical but the anguish caused cannot be doubted.
There is a way out. I am no Rabbinical scholar but understand that a Rabbi in Israel with impeccable orthodox credentials has proposed that homosexual relationships should be permitted on the basis of a principle in the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Avodah Zarah 54A) that oness rachmana patrei someone acting under a compulsion is excused by the Torah (from any punishment). While this may not sound very politically correct it might make progress possible.
I reject passionately the stereotype of Judaism, or even Haredi Judaism, as being opposed to physical pleasures. The regard for marital happiness and family life is one of the great glories of Judaism. But while we, in the heterosexual majority, can rejoice in its benefits we must have regard for the minority for whom such matters are less straightforward. The famous casualties of homophobic prejudices Alan Turing, Oscar Wilde and in the Haredi community itself Jacob de Haan, to name but a handful, are only the tip of the iceberg. The countless others who not having chosen their sexuality still suffer for it including the four hundred children in Haredi schools in the UK , deserve our consideration and support. Amanda Spielman is not wrong. She should be urged to do more not less.