Gay & Orthodox – an earthquake in the making?
It might seem strange to link Nepal’s catastrophic earthquake this week to homosexuality and its place in Judaism. But a surprising revelation emerged from the tragedy which killed over 3 000 and left tens of thousands injured and homeless: Several dozen Israelis trapped in Nepal were there as part of the process of surrogate childbirth for homosexual couples.
Same-sex couples living in Israel who want to have a child through a surrogate mother, must go abroad to do it. Nepal is one of the places where this is possible.
The motivation for these couples wanting children is the desire to live a “normal” life. To some, this means belonging to a community which accepts who they are, and raising a family. Judaism – and other major religions – has not yet come to terms with the increasing legitimisation of homosexuality and same-sex marriages, which are now legal in many countries including South Africa.
The more liberal Jewish denominations accept gays and lesbians as full congregants and in some cases even rabbis. But in Orthodoxy the issue is highly contested. What should an Orthodox rabbi do when confronted with a gay congregant who wants to remain Orthodox and participate in Jewish community and ritual, in synagogue and elsewhere? Including possibly raising a family or becoming a rabbi.
In February 2005 the movie “Trembling before G-d” came to Johannesburg, telling the story of openly gay Orthodox Rabbi Steven Greenberg. Predictably, it caused confrontation. The Beth Din condemned it and Jewish schools and other institutions were forbidden to screen it.
Greenberg, who accompanied the film to South Africa, said: “In the past, if you were gay, you would either shut up or leave Orthodox Judaism.”
For the Beth Din, the issue was clear: There could be no compromise on the halachic view condemning homosexuality, and Greenberg’s claim to be an Orthodox rabbi was unacceptable. He was here “under false pretenses”.
The Beth Din refused an invitation to present its viewpoint at an interfaith panel discussion following the film’s screening. Its most senior official said: “That sort of debate is an ‘American’ thing. Our duty is to educate and teach, not to debate.”
Now, JTA reports, four prominent modern-Orthodox rabbis have done what Orthodox gays and lesbians say was inconceivable a few years ago: They spoke at a public conference at Columbia University two weeks ago on the treatment of gay, lesbian and transgender people in Orthodox communities, called “Faith, Desire and Psychotherapy”.
Speakers included Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, former president of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America; Rabbi Mark Dratch, the RCA’s executive vice president; Rabbi Shaul Robinson, leader of the Modern-Orthodox Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York; and Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, a faculty member at Orthodox rabbinical school Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.
Others attended as observers, including Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, former executive vice president of the Orthodox Union.
A few years ago Helfgot managed to get over 100 Orthodox rabbis to sign a declaration, calling for inclusion of gays as “full members” of the Orthodox community. The declaration said that although Jewish law forbade gay sex, it “does not prohibit orientations or feelings of same-sex attraction, and nothing in the Torah devalues the human beings who struggle with them”.
In response, some 200 Orthodox rabbis issued a rebuttal – the Torah Declaration – declaring homosexuality an unacceptable “lifestyle” and describing homosexual inclinations as “changeable” through conversion therapy. Mental health professionals at the conference labelled such therapy psychologically dangerous.
The gay issue will remain divisive in Orthodox Judaism, and more so as demands increase from gay Jews who want to remain Orthodox. Is there any room for compromise here, or is this a simple matter of unambiguous, unchangeable halacha, versus liberal modernity, with no possibility of a meeting point – as many respected Orthodox rabbis say?
Is the participation of the aforementioned rabbis in this conference the opening of a new door for Orthodoxy? What we can be sure of is that the matter will not easily be resolved without the ground shaking.
Geoff Sifrin is former editor of the SAJR. He writes this column in his personal capacity.
A journey to authenticity
As South African Jews, we appreciate what it means to be Jewish. We appreciate how Judaism enriches our homes and families, how it connects us to community, how it gives our lives direction, meaning, and purpose. We appreciate, also, how Judaism helps us to become better people – compassionate, giving, loving, moral people. And how it brings us close to our Creator, to those around us, and to our own inner self. Judaism roots us in a rich spiritual, ethical, and historical tradition, and connects us to Jews around the world and our beloved Israel.
Judaism enriches our lives in so many ways. But as Shavuot approaches, we are reminded that being Jewish is connected to certain foundational facts and truths of actual events that happened.
On Shavuot, we celebrate the anniversary of the birth of the Jewish people – the story of who we are, where we come from, and most importantly, why we exist. This year, we mark exactly 3 333 years since G-d gave us the Torah on Mount Sinai.
Shavuot makes a factual claim about the origins of the Jewish people in the same way that Pesach does. At the Pesach seder, we trace the origins of our people from slavery to miraculous redemption through G-d Himself intervening in human history. And on Shavuot, we remind ourselves how three million Jews standing at the foot of a mountain heard G-d speak and begin the process of revealing His Torah to us and with it our purpose in life.
Take a moment to think about this. It’s a radical claim. To be a Jew isn’t just to be a member of a particular culture with a shared history. It’s to be part of an eternal covenant with G-d, to be the bearers of a Divine mission in the world. This is the essence of Jewish identity and Jewish destiny. This is who we are, where we come from, why we exist.
And so, everything depends on the historical claims we make on Pesach and Shavuot. This is a time to reflect not just on the meaning and the implications of the story of the origin of the Jewish people, but on its authenticity.
Earlier this week, I had a fascinating conversation with Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen. A graduate of the University of California Los Angeles and Harvard, he is a recognised expert on comparative religion. The conversation was about exactly this subject – the authenticity of the origin story of the Jewish people, and in particular of the Divine revelation at Sinai. Kelemen compared it to the origin story and historical claims of other religions and nations, and put forward a compelling, rational-scientific argument for the veracity of the Jewish story.
What moved me in our conversation was his personal life story. He grew up in a traditional family but challenged his parents on beliefs that they took for granted. He began his own journey to search for truth through his academic studies and other sources. In the end, he came to a deep realisation of the truths of Judaism, of G-d’s existence, and the authenticity of the Torah. He wrote books – Permission to Believe and Permission to Receive – to share his findings with others. In our conversation, he told me how he found faith and belief in Judaism through rational analysis of the facts. He reminded me that we are all on individual journeys of deepening our faith. This may be why the festival is called Shavuot, which literally means week, referring to the weeks leading up to Sinai, reminding us that getting to the mountain of truth is a process, an individual journey of faith and connection.
Let this year’s Shavuot be a catalysing moment for us individually and collectively as we embark on this journey of faith together.
I’d love to know about your journey. Reach out to me, and I’ll share source material that has been valuable to me on my journey. There is so much that has been written and spoken that can guide and illuminate our paths to the foundational truths of our people.
Closer to G-d in the desert
It’s no coincidence that Shavuot takes place just after we read the portion of Torah called Bamidbar (In the desert). It’s the beginning of the book of that name, a book that’s filled with the difficult coming-of-age of the Jewish people. But it’s also the place that the Jews went to from Egypt. What’s this desert experience, then?
Desert is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as “A waterless, desolate area of land with little or no vegetation, typically one covered with sand.”
I’ve been in many a desert, and I must beg to differ with the OED (with all due respect to that august work) and its adjective of “desolate”, which has a distinctly negative connotation. For naturalists, the desert has a different definition. Deserts cover about one-fifth of the earth’s surface, they usually get at most 50cm (20 inches) of rainfall a year, and the organisms that live in them are adapted to this extremely dry climate. (Courtesy National Geographic).
So, the desert, while not being easy to live in, is in fact a place of plants and animals that have overcome its difficulties, not just to survive but thrive.
How does Jewish thought see the desert? The midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 1:7) questions the phrase “bemidbar Sinai – in the Sinai Desert” – “And G-d spoke to Moses in the Sinai Desert”. (Numbers 1:1). Why the Sinai Desert? From here, the sages taught that the Torah was given through three things: fire, water, and wilderness. How do we know it was given through desert? As it says above, “And G-d spoke to Moses in the Sinai Desert”. And why was the Torah given through these three things? Just as (fire, water, and wilderness) are free to all the inhabitants of the world, so too are the words of Torah free to them. Another explanation: “And G-d spoke to Moses in the Sinai Desert” is that anyone who doesn’t make themselves ownerless like the wilderness cannot acquire the wisdom and the Torah. Therefore, it says, “the Sinai Desert”.
The idea of desert, then, is vital to the idea of Torah. In ancient times, no-one owned the desert – it was free to all who wished to walk it. Just so, the Torah belongs to all who seek its wisdom. Further, no-one can claim to own the true meaning of the Torah, saying “I, and only I, know what the Torah is saying”. After all, as the Talmud in a number of places states, “These and these are the words of the living G-d.”
Moreover, there is a psychological element to the statement, “Anyone who doesn’t make themselves ownerless (hefker)…” True learning of the Torah requires one to rid oneself of ego, to remove all sense of one’s own intellectual capabilities, pride, or arrogance. It’s so easy to feel that one has learnt “a lot” of Torah, spending time in a yeshiva or school to do so. But the Torah is vast, its horizon a mirage, which makes it difficult to navigate.
Just like a desert.
In the middle of the Kalahari Desert, I was struck by the vastness of physical space as well as the enormity of the silence. Indeed, the silence was so loud, I felt I could hear the earth spinning on its axis. I was humbled, struck by my smallness in the midst of the power of the desert. This is the mindset that the midrash demands of the students of Torah.
Finally, it’s in the desert that one can talk to G-d. Life is cleared of all extraneous detail, whittled down to its essentials. It’s only earth, and few creatures and plants. All baggage is cleared, and it’s just you, the stillness of the rocks, the wind sifting the grains of sand – and G-d, waiting to speak to you in the silence.
- Ilana Stein is head of education of the Academy of Jewish Thought and Learning, where she also lectures on Tanach and Jewish environmental ethics.
Ten Commandments – season 3 333 – at a synagogue near you
We love round numbers. The celebration of decades, half centuries, and centuries always takes on special significance. Next week, on Shavuot, we will celebrate, for the 3 333rd time, the anniversary of the gift of the Torah on Mount Sinai. The covenant took place in the year 1948 from creation, (1 313 BCE), hence 33 centuries and 33 years have now elapsed. Besides being an aesthetically pleasing number with a great ring, is there any significance to the number 3 333?
It turns out that the number 33 is very closely connected to the essence of the Sinai covenant. Allow me to take you on a journey into some simple numerology. In Psalms 119, King David begs Hashem to “uncover my eyes so that I can behold wonders in your Torah”. The Hebrew for uncover is gal which is spelt gimmel-lamed. According to the Gimatryia code, which ascribes a numerical value to each of the letters of our alphabet, a gimmel is worth 3 and a lamed 30. That adds up to 33!
On the very first Shavuot, back in the year 1948, the assembled nation at the foot of the mountain had their eyes opened to the true reality of this world, a place where G-dliness permeates and fills all space. Being a physical environment, the realm that we inhabit conceals, by its very nature, its true essence. But there at Sinai, we were shown a glimpse of the hidden divine dimension of this world.
There, we were given the Torah: a set of detailed instructions enabling us to crack the veneer of suppression, to uncover for ourselves the deeper spiritual dimensions of this world. The mitzvot, 613 divine instructions (248 obligations and 365 prohibitions) form the code that unlock that reality. Studying this Book of the Law helps us to delve into the G-dliness that’s all around us. Following the instructions therein, by all of us across many generations, will reveal the true reality that comprises this world.
Each generation builds on the achievements of the former. As we move down the course of history, closer and closer to an era when the knowledge of G-d will finally fill the world, we are delving deeper and deeper into loftier and more sublime levels of Torah. The initial unearthing took place at Mount Sinai, one week into our current month of Sivan. Another watershed event in this process was the revelation of the Kabbalah, the inner dimension of Torah, by the great Talmudic scholar, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. This took place on his final day on this earth. The anniversary of his death, and of the huge exposure of Torah, is the 18th of Iyar, corresponding to the 33rd day of the Omer – a day commonly referred to as Lag B’Omer (Lag is spelt gimmel-lamed = 33)!
King David prayed for Hashem to open his eyes and reveal to him the wonders that are found in Torah. This year’s Shavuot comes to us after a year and a half of what appears to us to be deep concealment, and weeks after a day of Lag B’Omer in which celebration turned into tragedy. As we prepare to celebrate the gift of this Torah for the 3 333rd time, we beg Hashem to open our eyes and show us the divine within this physical world so that all will finally be understood.
On Monday morning, at a synagogue near you, come hear the ten commandments read from the Torah. May season 3 333 turn out to be the final one, ushering in the era of moshiach that Jews have prayed and hoped for these 33 centuries and 33 years!
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