This article is adapted from the thesis I wrote for my Master’s in Religious Studies from NYU, dealing with how to more fully include gay and lesbian Orthodox Jewish people into Orthodox congregations and communities as equal participants. I found my interview subjects through contacting Jewish Queer Youth, one of the support groups for gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews. I conducted interviews about their experiences and performed a literature review of the academic works on the subject, of which there were only a few books available at the time. The literature review enhanced my understanding of the issues before, during, and after performing the interviews. Some of the books dealt with Orthodox responses to the issue from Orthodox rabbis. One of the books I used was written by Rabbi Steven Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi in the world. His book informed much of my discussion of the issues in my thesis, as his recounting of his struggles showed how he integrated both facets of his identity. Another book that came out after I had completed my thesis that discusses these issues is Jay Michaelson’s God vs Gay? The Religious Case for Equality.
As many of my interview subjects had also read Greenberg’s book, or at least knew of him, that was a very helpful starting point for the discussions I had with them. I came up with a list of interview questions ranging from their experiences coming out in general to when and whom they came out to in the Orthodox community and why they chose whom they chose. I asked them about how they grew up, i.e. Orthodox, or if they became Orthodox later. I also inquired about whether they felt it was acceptable to be in a same-sex relationship or not as this shed light on how they interpreted the injunctions against same-sex sexual behavior in the Torah.
For those gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews who view being connected with the wider Orthodox community as an integral part of their religious and personal lives, this rejection of this facet of their identity from the rest of the Orthodox community is incredibly damaging. Some of my subjects felt it necessary to disassociate themselves from organized synagogues as a result. The issue of how to include gays and lesbians in the synagogue as more complete participants in the life of the community is slowly becoming a major discussion in the Orthodox community. Some of the Orthodox don’t feel that this is an issue that needs to be discussed as the biblical prohibitions speak for themselves. Finding a way to accept one’s sexual orientation while not condoning their actions provides insight into biblical exegesis as different ways to interpret the same words and phrases are argued and defended.
A recent case of importance is that of the two Orthodox Jewish men from New Jersey who are suing JONAH, one of the organizations offering conversion therapy. As Rachel Benaim states in her recent article for Religion News Service, the case has caused some Orthodox rabbis to stop suggesting conversion therapy. This means that at least some in the Orthodox rabbinate recognize that the practice is harmful and causes psychological damage and not in agreement with current scientific knowledge. Some of the people I interviewed for my thesis stated that they underwent such therapy in an effort to change their orientation, and it likewise caused them emotional and psychological trauma. Benaim states that “…To be sure, some ultra-Orthodox rabbis deny the possibility of a homosexual identity altogether. Those who hold this view believe that according to the Torah, homosexuality is not an acceptable lifestyle or a legitimate identity…But a segment of the Orthodox wing allows for the possibility of a gay identity, even as it condemns gay marriage. These rabbis say gays and lesbians are created in the image of God and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.”
The changing opinions in the Orthodox community around the issue of how to recognize gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews has echoes in Christianity as well. This is because Christianity relies on the same biblical prohibitions found in Leviticus and elsewhere. There also exist movements and support groups for gay and lesbian Christians, who face the same issues as the Orthodox Jews in advocating for themselves to be included as full members of the community.
I hope that the increasing dialogue between the Orthodox establishment and the gay and lesbian Orthodox Jewish people continues to grow, as this in my view would be beneficial to both sides. The gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews who want to stay part of the community and the synagogues where they want to affiliate can help further the Jewish commitment to social justice in all its myriad forms. Discussing the issues and creating an atmosphere where all who want to be part can partake of the richness found in Jewish tradition, can only benefit those communities and the greater society as well. I look forward to following further developments in future posts.
Image Source: Alex Proimos (Via Wikimedia Commons)