American rabbis call for gay acceptance

By Rebecca Schischa, July 29, 2010
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A Gay Pride event in Tel Aviv

A Gay Pride event in Tel Aviv

A group of prominent American rabbis have called for more acceptance of gays and lesbians in the Orthodox community.

The "statement of principles", signed by over 80 community leaders, affirms the rights of Jews of all sexual orientations to "be welcomed as full members of the synagogue and school community... and treated under the same halachic framework as any other member of the synagogue they join".

Six months in the making, the document - written by rabbis Nathaniel Helfgot of New York's Yeshivat Chovevei Torah; Aryeh Klapper, dean of The Centre for Modern Torah Leadership in Boston; and Yitzchak Blau, an American-educated kollel head in Israel - states that harassing or demeaning gay Jews is "a violation of Torah prohibitions".

It recommends that homosexuals should not be encouraged to marry someone of the opposite gender, as this can lead to "tragedy and... ruined lives", and recognises that "change therapies" - controversial treatments promising to make a gay person straight - are often "ineffective or potentially damaging psychologically".

The document stopped short of embracing gay sexual relationships, stating that halachic Judaism "views all male and female same-sex sexual interactions as prohibited".

The authors are explicit in their commitment to halachah, saying that heterosexual marriage is "the ideal model" and that the signatories "cannot give [their] blessing to Jewish religious same-sex commitment ceremonies".

Each synagogue must "establish its own standard with regard to membership for open violators of halachah," the document said. However, it urged families of Jews in same-sex relationships to "to make every effort to maintain harmonious family relations".

"We want Jews of this orientation to not feel shunned. The goal is now for communities to take up the challenge of fidelity to halachah on the one hand, and embrace people of homosexual orientation and their families as much as we can on the other," said author Rabbi Helfgot.

The impetus for the statement was a high-profile symposium held at Yeshiva University in December 2009 entitled "Being Gay in the Modern Orthodox World", in which alumni spoke openly of their struggles of being gay in the frum world.

"A group of educators decided it was time to give people some guidance on this sensitive matter," said Rabbi Helfgot. "I'm sure there will be people on the right who won't like it and people on the left who will say it hasn't gone far enough, but that's the nature of trying to write a balanced document and trying to be as inclusive as possible."

American Jewish LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) groups have been quick to show their support.

"We are very pleased that so many courageous mainstream Orthodox rabbis have taken such an important step forward in recognising the needs of gays and lesbians in their communities," said Jay Michaelson, of Nehirim, a national Jewish LGBT community organisation. "If this statement can help separate a halachic issue on the one hand, from fear and homophobia on the other, it will go a long way."

Mordechai Levovitz, of JQYouth, a support group for young Orthodox gay Jews, said that the reaction from its 400 members was "overwhelmingly positive", with many posting a link to the statement on their Facebook pages.

"Many of these statements heal open wounds. We needed Orthodox rabbis to speak out against homophobia."

    Last updated: 2:26pm, July 29 2010