I'm gay, but I want a Jewish life

By Gemma Hersh, January 27, 2012
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I swore I'd never tell anyone. Least of all my parents. The embarrassment. The awkwardness. The shame. I wondered if people would simply stop talking to me.

Five years on, my world hasn't come crashing down. My parents haven't disowned me. I haven't lost any friends. I'm one of the lucky ones.

At no point during my process of self discovery (or "coming out" as it is often termed) did I consider what being gay meant for my religious identity. Being religious, or at least sitting within the broad umbrella of modern Orthodoxy, wasn't an issue for me then; I had neither the head space nor the inclination to address what I wanted from religion and what it could offer me. And, crucially, I only knew of one other person who was my brand of Jewish and a lesbian.

But, over the past year, I've reached a point that many Jews brought up in the Orthodox world will identify with: my peers are mostly married with children, and are increasingly defining their place within the community in much the same way our parents did. I can't help but wonder where this leaves people like me, who want a place in the community they know and love, but can't be part of - because they are gay.

We send a message that it's just not the 'done thing'

Our religion is intrinsically linked with ideas of family and community. But what are we teaching our children about families that are just like ours, but have one difference: parents of the same sex. What place is there in the modern Orthodox community for lesbians and gays?

The controversy surrounding the role of the JONAH site in JFS's Jewish studies curriculum reveals where the Orthodox community is with this. We think we should have a problem with it, but we aren't quite sure how far that goes. Do we say its wrong? If so, why? And what are the consequences of this, and do we support people who say they are gay?

These questions are not being answered. Worse, they aren't being addressed at all. It's easier for us to bury our heads in the sand than to tackle an issue that affects everyone.

What about the leading rabbinical authorities? Leviticus says: "Thou shalt not lie with a male as with a woman." The position on lesbians is unclear, although rabbinic interpretation suggests this is prohibited on the basis that we are told not to "do as they do in Egypt". Given the open-endedness of this statement and others, the halachic position is far from clear. But of course they'd never say this in public.

Halachah aside, what do our rabbis say about accommodating the gay community? A search of the Office of the Chief Rabbi website reveals nothing. A call to their office is met with unease; "Please email in the request?" Six months on, I'm still waiting for a reply.

We are left with cautious acceptance at most, but of the individual, not of relationships. Even that is a stretch for many who simply will not accept difference within their midst. So we don't talk about it - we send a message that it's just not the "done thing".

If you "choose" to be gay (many still see it as a choice), you will be forced to deny a large part of yourself. For those of us who are gay but have grown up in the community, the isolation is overwhelming. Some feel they must deny who they are to "fit in". Others turn their backs on religion altogether. Is this really the legacy we want to leave for our children, some of whom will be gay?

There are signs that the community is ready to move forward, the reaction to the JONAH story being a case in point. Last year, I asked Facebook friends about modern Orthodoxy and homosexuality. I was surprised by the positive response but not by the answers. There was no real idea of the halachic position, and an acceptance that being gay and frum would continue to be incompatible given the taboo way with which the subject is approached (stonewall silence, embarrassment, bordering on shame). Similarly, the entrenched notions of what Jewish family and community should be still represented a barrier.

What struck me most was the sadness and regret with which many respondents - the majority of whom identified as modern Orthodox - expressed this view, some even going as far as to say they felt there should be more discussion and leadership on this.

More discussion and more leadership. Sadly lacking now but let's hope not forever.

Gemma Hersh is a former Hasmonean pupil

Last updated: 10:48am, January 27 2012