No new gay way to stay frum

On July 22 2010, a Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in our Community was issued over the names of around 170 mainly Israeli and American Orthodox rabbis and educators.

I publicly welcomed the statement at the time and I do so still. From an Orthodox standpoint, the contents of this statement were unexceptional. But since the statement featured in last week's JC interview with the American-Israeli "lesbian rights campaigner" Talya Lev, I think it vital to point out what the statement did and did not say.

It reminded all Jews of their obligation "to treat human beings with same-sex attractions and orientations with dignity and respect". It pointed out that "embarrassing, harassing or demeaning someone with a homosexual orientation or same-sex attraction is a violation of Torah prohibitions that embody the deepest values of Judaism." And so it is.

But the statement went on to declare, in terms so unambiguous that no one on the right side of half-witted could possibly misinterpret them, that "Halachic Judaism views all male and female same-sex sexual interactions as prohibited". And it explicitly condemned, "Jewish religious same-sex commitment ceremonies and weddings".

Within Orthodoxy, the subject has never been taboo

Notwithstanding these reassertions of the Orthodox position on same-sex relationships, spokespersons from the world of gay activism have sought to present them as amounting, somehow, to evidence of a shift of policy towards homosexuality on the part of those charged with articulating Orthodox Jewish beliefs.

Ms Lev sees the statement as "a breakthrough" and, while admitting that the principles set forth in the statement "are far from ideal for us", she declares that they mark "the beginning of a long process towards full recognition and acceptance." They do not.

Ms Lev tells us that she grew up in a society in which "homosexuality was taboo", by which she probably meant that talking about homosexuality was taboo. Within Orthodox Judaism, homosexuality has never been "taboo". Orthodoxy recognises homosexual orientation as a human condition.

The Hebrew Bible itself is far from reticent on the subject. Whenever the eve of a new month coincides with the Sabbath, the extract from the Prophets that is read in every Orthodox synagogue comes from the first Book of Samuel and deals explicitly with the future King David's gay relationship with Saul's son, Jonathan.

But - and it is a big but - the context is one of disapprobation. Some rabbinical authorities argue that David's relationship with Jonathan was purely platonic. But the manner in which Saul berates his son for having slept with David is unequivocal. "You son of a perverse, rebellious woman, do I not know that you have chosen the son of Jesse [ie David] to your own shame, and to the shame of your mother's nakedness?"

I'm sure I need not remind Ms Lev that, on Yom Kippur, one of the passages read aloud in every Orthodox synagogue and shtibl is that from Leviticus dealing with various sexual practices, including homosexual acts: "You shall not lie with mankind as with womankind: it is an abomination."

Ms Lev no doubt takes comfort from the fact that lesbianism is prohibited nowhere in the Bible, though it is generally frowned upon and was explicitly condemned by Maimonides as "the practice of Egypt which we were warned against." On this ground alone, she can probably claim with some justification that, while in an active lesbian relationship, she is still a practising, Orthodox Jewess. If she wishes to have children (either through artificial insemination or the much cheaper natural method) they will of course be Jewish. That is the consolation - the only consolation - which halachah affords her.

But I agree with her - and so I'm sure do the signatories of the 2010 Statement - that attempts to "cure" homosexuals through this therapy or that or, worse still, to persuade or coerce homosexuals into heterosexual relationships, are morally dubious and almost always counter-productive.

The 2010 Statement did not address the phenomenon of transvestism. I did once, in an Orthodox synagogue somewhere in England, meet a Jewish man who habitually dressed as a woman. Except on Purim, this is forbidden.

I later discovered that, behind the extrovert exterior of this transvestite, there lay a sad wreck of a human being. Yet I have to confess I found myself wondering whether his behaviour was any more harmful than a dishonest businessman parading himself as a paragon of Orthodox Jewish probity. Somehow I don't think so.

    Last updated: 10:56am, June 17 2011