I often find myself envious of people who live in a world of black and white and for whom everything seems so simple and clear. It would much easier not to struggle, feel torn or grapple with complexity and uncertainty. And yet, being truthful to Torah and to ourselves often demands not taking the easy way out, but finding the courage, strength, conviction and sensitivity to live in the grey and bear the tension inherent in a sophisticated and nuanced approach to complicated issues.
One example that is increasingly confronting us in Jewish communal life is our approach to LGBT individuals and the LGBT community. Recently, I spoke to a group of observant teenagers about this issue and began by asking them: If a close friend were to invite you to a same gender marriage, would you attend? I was startled when every single hand in the group went up, with a few saying that they don’t necessarily approve of the lifestyle, but their dedication and loyalty to their friend and desire for their happiness dictate that they participate.
To illustrate to the students just how rapidly the world has evolved on this issue, I informed them that although President Obama currently describes opposition to same gender marriage as a form of discrimination, he was on record as opposing same gender marriage when he first ran for President. At the time, he said, “I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman. Now, for me as a Christian, it is also a sacred union. God’s in the mix.”
While for some advocates of same gender marriage change has not been fast enough, society has actually evolved at light speed on this issue. Until 1974, the American Psychiatric Association listed homosexuality as a mental illness in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Today, people are publicly celebrated, applauded and admired for “coming out” and for proudly embracing their identity and orientation.
The Jewish community in general, and the observant community in particular, are not insulated from this ongoing process. While statistics vary, somewhere between 1.6% (NHIS study) – 3.4% (Gallup poll) of Americans identify as LGBT. Make no mistake: that means that many Orthodox synagogues and schools likely have members and students who are struggling with their identities and with finding their place in a Torah community. In the coming weeks, months and years, our community will surely grapple with questions of shul membership, mazel tov announcements and receiving honors. Our schools will need to formulate policies on acceptances, shabbatons arrangements, and more.
Rather than continue to grapple, some in the community have taken radically opposite but equally confident approaches to these issues. On one side, one rabbi wrote, “It is a Mitzvah to come out!" Another declared, “Gay and Orthodox: An oxymoron no more.” And, most recently, yet another is quoted as saying that “LGBT must be welcomed in Orthodox communities and that one of the ‘great moments’ in his synagogue was when same-sex couples with children were accepted as full members.”
On the other side, there are websites and newspapers that refer to LGBT related events, including murder at a parade in Israel and a massacre in Orlando, with the label “to’eiva,” abomination, in the headline. Individuals flippantly and cruelly talk about those who identify as LGBT as disgusting, calling on them to undergo conversion therapy and “become normal,” and describe them as abominations.
Calling for categorical inclusion, acceptance and accommodation or, conversely, for absolute rejection, alienation and expulsion is convenient and expedient, but seems to me to be an unjust and unfair copout. Our Torah values demand that we approach this issue, like others, with nuance, sensitivity and conviction, even if it means living with the ongoing discomfort of tension and complexity.
The Torah’s prohibitions in these areas are incontrovertible and non-negotiable. All the sympathy and sensitivity in the world cannot move us to be matir issurim, to permit that which our sacred Torah forbids. Undeniably, our rabbis have been tremendously critical of those who unabashedly flaunt a lifestyle inconsistent with halacha.
Yet, it is also unquestionable that there are no perfect people and that everyone struggles with some aspect of the rigors and demands of halacha. We have 613 mitzvos that translate into thousands of Jewish laws, and we generally don’t define, accept or reject people based on their transgression of one or more of them. Granted, as this issue is not merely one of behavior or private action, but for many individuals, lies at the core of their self-identity, formulating our community’s approach is inevitably more complicated. But, nonetheless, it is critically important to remember that the Torah forbids action—the verb—and doesn’t even recognize LGBT identity as a noun.
The stakes for how we evolve—not with regard, of course, to core halachic standards and principles, but in how we apply them in our changing world—are tremendously high. To its credit, the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest umbrella organization of Orthodox rabbis in the world, dedicated a day of its conference this week to this very topic. The conversation instantly became very real and personal when we heard from a panel of men and women who were raised Orthodox and are learned, sincere and committed to a halachic life, but who no longer deny or hide their gay orientation.
They each had their own stories, backgrounds and experiences, but the common themes among them were the depression they suffered and the bullying and the abuse they experienced. One of them referenced that they struggled to fight off suicidal thoughts. All of them spoke lovingly and respectfully of the Torah community they long to find a place in and even went so far as to acknowledge the limitations to their full integration. A mental health professional spoke, as did several rabbis, who have dealt extensively with these issues and who offered a Torah perspective.
While the conversation did not end with conclusive answers, one thing is abundantly clear to me. We have a responsibility to Hashem and His Torah, to those who identify as LGBT, and to ourselves, to not take an inauthentic, pandering or cruel way out. Triumphant statements of breakthroughs or headlines with rhetoric and hate will not positively contribute to carrying out our awesome responsibility to deal with this issue sensibly, with sensitivity and with steadfast commitment to Torah and halacha.
The stakes are extremely high because it is not only the LGBT community that is carefully watching the policies we set and the statements we issue. Only approximately 2% of the population is LGBT, but many of the other 98% are almost equally interested in how we handle this issue that they care deeply about, even if they are not directly affected by it. Living with the tension and seeking to strike this balance will be critical to remain relevant and compelling to the next generation.
We may wish this issue had not evolved in this way and that we never had to confront this new reality, but it is here. Ignoring it or mishandling it won’t make it go away, but will likely make many Jews go away from our community and from an observant way of life.
As this conversation continues and policies need to be set, we must find ways to stay unwaveringly and unapologetically true to halacha and Torah while also being sensitive, caring, loving and welcoming, to the extent we can, for everyone. If we are inclusive, it is not because society dictates it as an absolute value, but because seeing tzelem Elokim in all and finding a space for them, no matter their particular struggles, is a Torah value. And if we must set limits, it is not because we are homophobic or reject basic civil rights, but because Torah, with its infinite wisdom and timeless sagacity, demands these principles and boundaries. Striking this balance, living with these tensions and being in a state of discomfort is not easy. Being in the grey often feels increasingly lonely. Nonetheless, I believe it is our sacred duty and obligation now, perhaps more than ever.
Getting our communal policies right will take time, and we need not feel pressured by the frantic pace of societal transitions around us that want to see changes yesterday. We must move slowly, exceedingly cautiously and extremely delicately.
In the meantime, while the conversation continues, there are two contrasting sensitivities that I think we need to maintain. First, while it goes without saying that we should always choose our words carefully, be respectful and never communicate in a derogatory or disparaging manner, it is especially important to be careful how we talk about this issue. Remember, you never know what someone you are talking to or their family member, friend or neighbor is going through. Second, especially given the Torah’s position and halacha’s demands, remain respectful of those with traditional attitudes or who want to insulate their children from conversations on this topic.
As a community, we need to deliberate carefully and consult with our greatest poskim (halachik decisors), leaders, mental health professionals and stakeholders on all sides. Taking shortcuts, on the other hand, may imperil our quest to strike a faithful balance between allowing the entirety of our community to be true to themselves and maintaining our unequivocal dedication to the authenticity of Torah.