With black hat and tzitzit swinging, Rabbi Mike Moskowitz wears the uniform of the yeshivah world. He was talmudically tutored at one of Israel’s most prestigious Torah institutes, Mir, and in the Charedi powerhouse of Lakewood, New Jersey.
But his current role is not one his rabbinic mentors would have envisaged: as scholar in residence for trans and queer Jewish studies at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York, the largest LGBTQ synagogue in the world — or “Beis Simchas Torah” he says in his Ashkenazi way.
Over the past five years he has emerged as a staunch advocate for the inclusion of LGBT people within Judaism, producing more than 100 articles and several books. People “shouldn’t have to choose between a gender identity and a religious identity,” he has said.
He was in the UK last week for a conference run by the Ozanne Foundation, which campaigns on behalf of LGBTQ people within faith communities, and also took part in a panel with another participant at the conference from the USA, Rabbi Steve Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi.
It was five years ago that a JW3 banner advertising its “GayW3” festival was defaced with the word “Shame”, prompting Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis to condemn the graffiti and declare that homophobia was “unacceptable”. But later that year a number of strictly Orthodox rabbis signed a letter urging their congregants to stay away from JW3.
The episode illustrated the tensions within Orthodoxy. The Chief Rabbi’s emphasis has been on tackling homophobia and encouraging greater empathy and understanding for LGBTQ members of the community, as his pioneering guide for schools in 2018 demonstrated. But further to the right, the focus remains on the rejection of “forbidden” lifestyles and Charedi schools continue to resist the requirement to talk about LGBTQ issues as part of the government’s recently introduced relationships and sex education curriculum.
Rabbi Moskowitz’s journey to Congregation BST as a straight, strictly Orthodoxy yeshivah graduate began in the back of a police van.
He first began asking himself questions when a member of his own family transitioned from female to male and he struggled to understand. As a campus outreach rabbi, he was also coming across LGBTQ students who sought his counsel. When he began to speak openly for greater compassion, he experienced a backlash; the job opportunities dried up and he had to take work in a deli back in Lakewood.
In 2018, he went to Washington for a demonstration against anti-immigration policy and was arrested. He found himself in “the back of a police van with five male and female rabbis — there was a metal mechitzah down the middle,” he recalled.The woman across said, ‘Does anyone have any Torah they want to share?’ Everyone was in handcuffs, it was a captive audience.”
That woman was Sharon Kleinbaum, Senior Rabbi of Congregation BST, which created a role especially for him. He may teach for the synagogue, which is Progressive in outlook though affiliated to no movement, but he continues to daven in a more traditional setting.
While faithful to the idea that the Torah received by Moses on Mount on Sinai is “eternal” and “immutable”, he believes it contains the interpretations that enables new challenges to be addressed within a halachic framework and therefore it is our duty to search for them.
For example, the rabbis originally believed it was forbidden to write down the Oral Law but when the fear grew that it could be forgotten, they permitted it to be transmitted in the Mishnah and the Gemara. “If we are worried about Torah being lost, why aren’t we worried about people being lost?” he has argued.
Those who cite the verse in Leviticus on sexual activity between men often refer to its description of the practice as a to’evah, typically translated as “abomination”. But drawing on his extensive knowledge of Jewish sources, Rabbi Moskowitz says the word has a different connotation, which applies to deception.
So if a gay man who might have been encouraged by his rabbi to marry a woman strays from his wife to be with another man, that is the “abomination”.
“Being gay itself is not a to’evah,” he has written. “Forcing people to life a life of deception is.”
Rabbi Moskowitz has officiated at a marriage between two Jewish women. Rabbi Greenberg, whose 2004 book Wresting with God & Men opened up the debate within Orthodoxy, was the first Orthodox rabbi known to have conducted a commitment ceremony for two Jewish men in 2011.
Making the case for halachic reinterpretation, Rabbi Greenberg has argued that the prohibition against male homosexual practice applies when in the context of “violence and humiliation” or of idolatrous rites.
If much of the Orthodox world has moved on since the leading American authority Rabbi Moshe Feinstein considered homosexuality a “demonic possession” half a century ago, many rabbis nevertheless feel stuck in the view that the only halachic option is to advise a person attracted to others of the same sex to remain celibate.
And lifelong celibacy is not a “credible adult life”, Rabbi Greenberg told JW3.
He quoted a Catholic priest who had once said to him, “The moment they understand that homosexuality is a non-pathological, minority expression of ordinary human desire for intimacy, love and companionship, everything will change.”
While a number of Orthodox rabbis were interested in the commitment ceremony he had developed, he anticipated wider progress in a decade or so.
But the JW3 discussion heard more than once that there are rabbis who will privately acknowledge something they still dare not to in public.
And while any halachic change lies in the hand of the rabbis, grassroots pressure has its place too. Another JW3 panellist, Jude Rose, a former United Synagogue rebbetzin who now identifies as non-binary, said that change would come “when parents stop being ashamed of their children and speak out”.