A few months ago, I had the opportunity to ask a rabbi the question, “How does the Orthodox Jewish community view homosexuality?” He assured me, with all sincerity, that Orthodox Jewish people are by no means homophobic. They would never abandon a child for being gay, as to neglect one’s children breaks God’s mitzvot, or commandments. Homosexuality, on the other hand, is also a violation of mitzvot. Orthodox Jewish people simply view “the homosexuals,” he told me, as they view anyone else who breaks a mitzvah. That is to say, they are sinners who must be treated with
compassion and gently guided away from their immoral behavior.
Needless to say, I was disappointed. This sort of “love the sinner, hate the sin” rhetoric is pervasive across many religions. While it is less blatantly hateful than other positions, it nonetheless remains insidiously homophobic. To label same-sex attraction “sinful” tells queer people that a core aspect of our identity is shameful, that we must repress it in exchange for tolerance from our community.
Now, before I go further, let me make one thing clear: This is not a “call-out” of the Jewish community. Jewish people are no more homophobic or transphobic than any other religion. Like other religions, the more observant sects of Judaism tend to be less accepting of LGBTQ+ people, whereas others within the Jewish community have taken steps to welcome queer and trans people. The purpose of this article is not to bash Jewish people as intolerant or bigoted. Instead, I aim to provide some introspection on the modern queer Jewish experience. As we live in a predominantly Christian country, there is always much discussion within the LGBT community on how Christian spaces can be more inclusive, on how we can assure young, queer Christians that their faith accepts them. And that’s great! But queer and trans Jewish kids deserve that, too.
The three main branches of Judaism have responded to the LGBTQ+ community in different ways. The least observant branch of Judaism, Reform Judaism, adapts Jewish law for modern life and tends not to literally interpret the Jewish holy text, the Torah. The Reform Jewish movement has called for gay rights as early as the 1960s; today, Reform rabbis officiate same-sex weddings and queer and trans Jewish people are welcomed into the community. The Union for Reform Judaism passed a resolution in 2015 to affirm the rights of transgender and nonbinary Jewish people.
Orthodox Judaism, on the other hand, interprets the Torah literally and observes Jewish tradition most strictly. Two reports outline the Orthodox community’s views on homosexuality. Despite urging kindness towards queer Jews in theory, the “Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community” (2010) nonetheless reaffirms the Orthodox community’s ban on homosexual sex and same-sex marriage. Similarly, “The Declaration on the Torah Approach to Homosexuality” (2011) calls for the “healing” of same-sex attraction (that is, conversion therapy). Almost all Orthodox rabbis, most notably Eliezer Waldenberg, refuse to recognize the validity of transgender identity.
Then there’s Conservatism Judaism, which falls between Orthodox and Reform Judaism in terms of observance; Conservative Judaism does not follow the Torah word for word but also does not take as many liberties with its interpretation as Reform Judaism. The Conservative movement, although slow to accept LGBTQ+ Jews at first, seems to have caught up to the Reform movement. The movement approved same-sex marriage in 2012; the Conservative group the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards came out in support of gay and lesbian civil rights in 1990 and the inclusion of transgender people in 2016. Like the Reform movement, they ordain LGBTQ+ rabbis.
While the Jewish community as a whole remains divided in regards to LGBTQ+ rights, we are making progress. I spoke to Shira Berkowitz about this progress. Berkowitz helps lead Q Jews, an organization that pushes for LGBTQ+ inclusion in Jewish spaces. “We went from a place where there really wasn’t a lot of room in the Jewish community for people to really celebrate or talk about being LGBTQ, to a little bit more awareness,” they said. Berkowitz’s work at a variety of Jewish organizations focuses on “the push for there to be internal policies … that say how we’re going to behave [towards LGBT people] in Jewish institutions, and setting up those institutions with cultural competency training so that they can train the community to make sure that we have a standard of practice.”
To Berkowitz it is ignorance, not hatred, which poses the greatest obstacle to LGBT inclusion in the Jewish community. “I think that there is a lot of allyship, but a lot of unknowingness on how allies can show up and make space in the Jewish community for LGBTQ people to be a part of the community,” they said.
To be sure, we have a long way to go. But I believe that the Jewish community may be uniquely up to the task of including LGBTQ+ folks. After all, Jewish thought is founded on the notion of tzedakah, or “justice.” Tzedakah is a mitzvah; that is to say, as Jewish people we are commanded to seek justice. Our responsibility to work towards an equitable society is a core value of Judaism. This principle is reflected in the Jewish custom of tikkun olam, or “repairing the world,” acts of charity meant to help others in one’s community. Truly, then, there could be nothing more Jewish than reaching out to include the LGBT community. “I think that in the Jewish community, we have a real understanding of having an identity that moves people to do social justice work,” Berkowitz said. “It’s really common to find LGBT activists who are Jewish.”
Looking forward, there is hope that more members of the LGBTQ+ community will find a place in Jewish life. According to Berkowitz, “I think there is a long way to go. [We need] representation in our professional Jewish demographics, of queer people in our professional staff, or in our rabbinate.”
I certainly agree with them-- having queer representation in Jewish spaces makes a huge difference. For instance, when Shira Berkowitz started Q Jews in 2011, I was a closeted ten year old still bewildered by my own queer identity. I love B’nai Amoona, the Conservative St. Louis synagogue where I grew up, but it was noticeably lacking in queer role models. Shira Berkowitz, the openly queer young adult who taught music at the Hebrew school, was the exception. Having them as a role model (although admittedly I looked up to them from afar) made all the difference for my younger self.
Berkowitz urges young LGBT+ Jewish people to remain hopeful. “The landscape of institutional Judaism is changing a lot,” they said. “[Queer and trans teens] will find their place in how they want to engage in the Jewish community, so don’t give up on the Jewish community. The community is changing and it will catch up to them where they need to be.”