Kovi Skier

Why Orthodox Jews should Support LGBT Rights

Tel Aviv Pride parade, 2019

Gay Pride month is a confusing time to be a Jew in Israel.

On social media, my news feed is a seamless blur of rainbow flags, on the one hand, and the righteous indignation of the pious, on the other. Many seem to take for granted the incompatibility of sexual diversity with the stringencies of Orthodoxy. Still others adopt a “live and let live” mentality that allows them to treat their neighbors with decency and preserve their devotion to god, even as the burning questions and cognitive dissonance arising from certain harshly-worded passages of Scripture are pushed below the surface to simmer indefinitely. Then there are those few and adventurous pioneers who would ferret out universal explanations and reimaginings of the Torah and its commentaries that frame them in a more flexible and tolerant light, begging for it all to make sense.

I don’t pretend to have that perfect answer, any more than the next person. I’m not a theological scholar, although I did grow up in the Hareidi Yeshiva system, and I can’t explain, if there is a god, why he would create people a certain way, only to spurn them and incite against them. Perhaps such an explanation is still waiting to be uncovered, some cosmic truth that can finally restore and vindicate the faith in our elders that so many of us lost on our journeys to adulthood.

But there is one thing I can say with confidence: Until such a universal truth is discovered, religious Jews should support LGBT rights. Yes, even the Orthodox. Even Hareidim.

You heard me right. The Torah tells you that a particular act is wrong; I nonetheless contend that you, its devoted follower, should fight for the right of the other to breach such commandment and to celebrate the identity it imparts to them. I see no contradiction in this statement, and I hope that by the end of this article, neither will you.

To understand how these statements are compatible, we must first distinguish between two different worlds of jurisprudence that have become blurred and intertwined by the heat of politics and fundamentalism: There is the world of Halacha, the internal regulation of Orthodox Jewish life, on the one hand; and the world of the State, its laws and its legal systems on the other, which interfaces with the Halachic world in various avenues – some more justified than others.

It is worth noting that there are many aspects of life in which the Orthodox world has no trouble separating and distinguishing between these two worlds. After all, are Orthodox Jews not happy to celebrate the victory of their team in any given sports championship, even if such tournament was held on Shabbat, or if the players ate non-Kosher food? Even if the religious fan, themselves, would have been precluded from participating in such tournament owing to the restrictions of their faith? I recall the Orthodox rabbis and students of my childhood being avid baseball and basketball fans, to the point that the sports world is frequently referenced in American Hareidi media. There is a process of internal compartmentalization that takes place here, in which it is made clear to the Orthodox sports fan that the standard they apply to themselves need not apply to the other, and that by celebrating the other’s achievement, they are not celebrating the violation of such standard, but the achievement itself, and for itself.

And yet, we have allowed ourselves to be led to believe, by this or that advocate, that when it comes specifically to sexual diversity, any form of acknowledgment, however symbolic, would amount to rebellion against god. What is the difference? Because we believe god to be more obsessed with human sexuality than with any of the other 613 commandments we are given? If I celebrate the marriage of two men that have striven their whole lives to be united, I am celebrating their happiness, not their implied sexual relationship. Is this any more a rebellion than celebrating that home run that a Jewish baseball player happened to hit on Shabbat?

Let us not forget that a Jew caught gathering sticks on Shabbat is put to death in the historical narrative of the Torah. As were Jews who worshipped through icons or committed other assorted violations. Indeed, the same harsh language used to condemn homosexuality in the Torah is also used in reference to eating seafood.[1] Thus, there is no reason for us to believe, based on Scripture itself, that this a field of Halachic regulation that must be taken more seriously than others – certainly when the result has such serious ramifications for our treatment of others.

As we can see, the philosophical framework already exists within the Orthodox world, that would allow Hareidim and other religious devotees to acknowledge and support their LGBT brothers and sisters without fear of any message this might send. All this would require, on the foundational level, would be for the Orthodox Jew to realign their view on homosexuality with their views on any of the other Halachic violations on account of which we do not judge or censure our neighbors. The obstacle to common decency and acceptance is not religious or Halachic in nature, but rather, the conflation of these with conservative politics. And if politics is the only true obstacle to treating other human beings with respect, then it is more than clear from Pirkei Avot how our sages would have ruled on the primacy of human decency over appearances. Simply put, we do not need to invent new fences and boundaries or arrive at innovative Halachic conclusions that would require us to violate more forthright commandments and expectations incumbent on observant Jews.[2]

This is why I see no contradiction to Orthodox Jews celebrating Pride Month. But beyond this, I believe that compelling reason exists for Orthodox Jews to do so, even when they could just as easily remain indifferent and uninvolved. To make this argument I will, with much apologies, be forced to invoke Kant once more – though I wish to make clear, as well, that Kantian ethics are effectively incorporated into Orthodox philosophy, if not Halacha, by shorthand, as we will see below.

In previous posts, we discussed how the cornerstone of Kantian ethics is comprised of the “categorical imperative,” where a given imperative can be described as objectively “good” only to the extent that it is “universifiable” – or, simply put, good for everyone. This principle is a common denominator that joins many approaches to philosophy and religion, including Orthodox Judaism, so much so that it is commonly termed “the Golden Rule.” When Hillel summarized the Torah with the phrase “What you despise – do not unto others,”[3] he was not mouthing platitudes, but offering a sincere interpretation of the verse in Leviticus – “Love thy neighbor as thyself”[4] as representing more than yet another commandment; but rather, a guiding principle by which all of the commandments were to be implemented.

By this, I don’t mean to argue that the general principle of mutual respect was intended to overrule specific commandments in the Torah; I am merely establishing that the concept of reciprocal respect as a foundation for human interaction is established in Orthodox Judaism, in general, as a guiding principle. This means that our conception of Kantian ethics and its derivatives also, effectively, must have their parallel derivatives in the world of Halacha to those derived in the secular study of philosophy.

This being the case, we can see, from the reasoning of our own sages, the value in Rawles’ “Veil of Ignorance” approach to governance; that it is both good and, beyond the interest of doing good, of our own self-interest to live under a society that is governed by protection of the lowest common denominator. To find that which we mustn’t do unto others, we need only imagine that it is we who will be the targets of any policy our government might choose to apply, and act so as to avoid becoming the targets of “what we despise.”

When walking through the streets of Jerusalem and seeing posters proclaiming the “Courage to be Normal,” we cannot fail to recall that Jews are in no way, nor have they ever been, considered “normal” members of any society we have inhabited – Orthodox Jews, doubly so. Indeed, such a poster could just as easily have serviced the Hellenist or Roman occupational governments that sought to stamp out the Torah study that was deemed so “deviant” to their cultures. It is a fact that, for the majority of our history, Orthodox Jews – and specifically their Torah study and religious communal life – have been among the elements of society most needing for the protection of the governing regime, and not the other way around. This being the case, it should be self-evident why it serves the interests of Orthodox Jews to support a formulation of society that protects the rights of minority communities and restricts the conformational urges of the majority, whomever they may be. The commandment of “Love thy neighbor” is more than an ethical imperative – it is also a vital tool of self-preservation.

In this sense, I believe it becomes clear why a government that fully respects and protects the rights of the LGBT community is also, by definition, the government most equipped and assured to reliably protect the rights of the Orthodox to pursue a communal life centered on Torah study. And in the realm of politics, can there be a more agreed and justified end for the Orthodox establishment to pursue than this? Celebrating the rights of others does not mean subscription to the specific practices of each community, but rather, the celebration and defense of all rights, of a system of governance that we know we can rely on in our hour of need – because we have made it such, and confirmed it in respect of the needs of others.

True, the Torah lifestyle and the celebration of sexual diversity may seem like strange bedfellows. Nonetheless, for the purposes of governance, they are one and the same: Deviations from the norm that find themselves vulnerable to the whims of majority electorates that will always be pushing for conformity, always seeking the other to reject in order to define the “normal.” By promoting the right of the one to exist in society, you necessarily promote the other as well – and by attacking and seeking to restrict LGBT rights in law and society, Orthodox Jews lay the groundwork for their own persecution.

Thus, we can conclude from the above that support for LGBT rights is not inconsistent with the Halachic lifestyle, and need not be seen as condoning any particular action that violates Halacha; that the pursuit of a society of mutual respect is a guiding principle in Orthodox philosophy as transmitted by our sages, in addition to serving as the foundation of Kantian ethics; and that the promotion of such a society is a vital self-interest of the Orthodox community, and one that necessitates support for LGBT rights and minority rights in general.

It is my sincere hope that, while this argument does not address the underlying theological questions arising from the Scripture, it will nonetheless be accepted by the religious reader as justifying a pragmatic and reciprocal approach to supporting the rights of minorities in general – and the LGBT community in particular – in the context of government and society.

I am also well aware that the above analysis does not address the instances in which this same logic would demand government intervention in minority communal life for the sake of protecting the rights of individuals therein. This is a more complex subject that I hope to explore at length in future posts.

[1] Deuteronomy 14:3

[2] Without engaging in a more involved discussion on the commandment of Bal Tosif.
[3]  Talmud Bavli, Tractate Shabbat, pp. 31A
[4] Leviticus 19:18. The Maharsha brings down that Hillel derived his principle from this positive commandment.
About the Author
I was raised in a small Ultra-Orthodox community in Milwaukee, and made Aliya at the age of 18. I volunteered in the IDF and continue to serve in the reserves. Today I work and research in the field of law, while enthusiastically pursuing my hobbies of historical and political research and discourse. I am a husband and father of three.
Related Topics
Related Posts