Proud to be gay and Orthodox
A lesbian rights campaigner welcomes what she sees as a major advance in the battle for acceptance in Israel's religious community
Talya Lev in Jerusalem. She says some women have commited suicide rather than come out as lesbians
Talya lev speaks with the conviction and energy of a seasoned campaigner who scents that victory is in the Jerusalem air. The 27-year-old American-born Israeli gay activist feels that when it comes to the issue of religious Jewish lesbians, things are changing.
"We are in the middle of a revolution right now," she says. She is referring to the signing last summer of a statement of principles by a number of Orthodox rabbis in America and Israel, calling for the acceptance of gays within the Orthodox community.
"They said that heterosexual marriage remains the sole legitimate outlet for human sexual expression, but they also clearly expressed that homosexuals should be treated with the same dignity and respect as any other member of the community," says Lev.
"This alone is a breakthrough in the Orthodox world, and the statement of principles has been signed by over 100 Orthodox rabbis and educators since 2010. The principles are far from the ideal for us, but they are the beginning of a long process towards full recognition and acceptance."
Lev is the English-language spokesperson for the Israeli organisation Bat-kol - which translates as "a heavenly or divine voice which proclaims God's will or judgment". According to her, women should be able to fulfil their lesbian identity, and to raise children, while remaining committed to their religion.
We are in the middle of a revolution right now
Bat-kol has been running for only a little over five years - it was founded by 10 women in 2005 - but membership now stands at over 400 and it continues to attract new recruits every week.
"Some members have established families with their partners and raise children," Lev says, "while others are still in the closet. We are committed to being a very strong support system for each other."
Lev grew up in the United States and Germany and comes from an observant backgroud. "I think I only began to realise same-sex attraction when I was about 17," she says. "I ignored it because I had no idea there was such a thing as normal lesbian relationships. I was raised in a traditional Jewish home, and in the society I grew up in, homosexuality was taboo. More than that, in fact. I received the message that it was all gross and disgusting. So I put my energies into attracting men because that, to me, was what constituted normal."
She married at the age of 22 although almost immediately the relationship became "a complete disaster. I thought everything was going wrong for me because I had sinned by having been with women before my marriage. After everything fell apart, I decided that the time had come for me to come out to myself, to my family and friends. It was a painful process that went on for several years."
Tel Aviv might well be one of the world's gay hot-spots. Not so Jerusalem, where a few years ago, an Orthodox Jew called Yishai Shlisel stated that it was his religious convictions that had led him led to seek to interrupt a Jerusalem Gay Pride parade by "murdering on behalf of God because we can't have such abomination in the country". He stabbed and wounded three marchers.
"You get fanatics in every community and we mustn't allow people like him to stop our onward march for acceptance and equality," says Lev. "Still, it gives you an idea of the sort of prejudices which are out there within certain elements of our religious community."
A far less extreme reaction comes from Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality (Jonah), a US-based group pledged to provide therapy to reverse same sex attraction - or as its mission statement says: "Through psychological and spiritual counseling, peer support, and self-empowerment, Jonah seeks to reunify families, and to heal the wounds surrounding homosexuality.
"I can hardly bring myself to talk about this," says Lev. "It hurts me to know that people are being encouraged by rabbis and community leaders to try and change their sexual orientation, as if it is a disease rather than being acknowledged as a normal, natural, and integral part of who they are."
She is considerably more understanding towards another innovative idea currently doing the rounds in the Orthodox community. Rabbi Areleh Harel of the West Bank settlement of Shilo has established a name for himself in religious circles as the go-to rabbi for homosexuals. His initiative has led to over a dozen marriages between gay men and lesbian women.
"Look, this is not for me," Lev is quick to note. "But I am not going to say that it's wrong. So many women I have met have spent much of their lives attempting to reconcile their sexuality with the model of the traditional family that is central to the religious community. This rabbi is apparently trying to provide a compromise which includes the male-female dynamic and which is, after all, a key element in traditional Judaism."
Lev says that her heart goes out to women who are struggling with their sexual identity, as they live with "the paralysing fear of what will happen should someone find out.
"Many women still find themselves unable to embrace their sexuality and religious identity. This, in many cases, leads to severe depression and loneliness. I know that there have been suicides too. Our work at Bat-kol, which shows that you can be both religious and in a loving relationship with someone of the same sex has, quite literally, been saving lives."