Pity is not Equality

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August 30, 2010

It is encouraging to hear that there are Orthodox rabbis who are sensitive to the plight of religiously-observant gay Jews. The recent statement drafted by Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot and signed by a number of Orthodox rabbis and other Orthodox Jewish professionals is the first to come out of the Orthodox community that actually condemns homophobia and insists that gay and lesbian people are created in the Image of God.

While this statement certainly is a step in the right direction, it is a problematic document on a variety of levels. The statement calls on Orthodox synagogues to accept “Jews with homosexual orientation” as full members and their children as students in Orthodox Day schools. Yet this same document leaves it up to each synagogue (and I assume each school) to decide if they want to accept openly gay couples as members. Similarly, the statement acknowledges that gay and lesbian people are created in the Image of God, but calls anyone who acts on their homosexual urges a sinner who could conceivably not be fit to serve in a synagogue position or as a shaliach tzibbur (one who leads the congregation in prayer) on the High Holidays. Not surprisingly, given this position, the document also condemns same-sex marriages.

This leaves a person who truly accepts gays and lesbians as complete human beings created in the Image of God wondering how any self-respecting gay or lesbian person would choose to remain within the Orthodox community, even one that accepts this statement of principles completely. The statement seems really only to embrace gay and lesbian Jews who are so committed to being Orthodox that they are willing to remain in the closet or live a celibate life. For what other scenario are these rabbis imagining? Why would an openly gay couple with children join an Orthodox shul that does not see them as full members and considers their lifestyle sinful? And why would they send their children to an Orthodox Day School that accepts their children but considers their parents sinners?

I applaud the statement’s signers in their attempt to be compassionate, but is it healthy for families to be part of a community that they know accepts them only out of pity? Especially when they can be full members of other Jewish communities that actually value their contribution and membership and consider their lifestyle totally acceptable and even admirable (considering the courage it takes to be openly gay and religiously observant).

So while this statement is bold considering where it is coming from, and while it appears to be welcoming gays into the Orthodox world, the conditions it places upon gay and lesbian people send the opposite message. It reminds me of when I was told seventeen years ago by the rabbi of a suburban Maryland Orthodox shul that I could come join the community despite my openly feminist views, as long as I did not wear my tallit and tefillin. I know the cases are not exactly parallel, because there is actually no prohibition for a woman to wear tallit and tefillin, but the effect was the same. I ran as far as I could from that community. If you accept someone, you can’t accept them half-way. Once you start putting conditions upon their acceptance, you are in effect telling them to go elsewhere, to go to a place where people will actually accept them fully.

When another Orthodox rabbi of a synagogue in Manhattan was more blunt, telling me to go to the Jewish Theological Seminary (of the Conservative movement) if I wanted to put on tefillin, I was hurt, but I respected his honesty.

This may be why you see no women rabbis signed onto this document. While there are a number of women with Orthodox rabbinic ordination—I am one of them—we know what it feels like to be accepted conditionally. “You can study the material to become a rabbi,” I was told, “but why do you need the title?” No one would ever say that to a man, just like no one would ever expect a straight person to be willing to participate fully in a community yet not be a full member.

If one truly believes that all human beings were created in the Image of God, then there are many theological questions that need be addressed that this document does not seem ready to tackle. It is simple to use halakhah as an excuse not to ask these challenging questions about ethics, human dignity, and how we relate to those who are different than us. But those of us who know that halakhah is not stagnant and is always open to reinterpretation can see that this statement has a way to go before it actually treats gay and lesbian people as human beings who are truly created in the Image of God.

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