Who will follow in the steps of Chief Rabbi Mirvis?
When he was first appointed in 2013, Chief Rabbi Mirvis urged orthodox synagogues to welcome LGBT+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and other) Jews into their communities. Now, he has gone much further by co-creating guidance for religious, orthodox schools on how to relate to LGBT+ children (see https://chiefrabbi.org/lgbtwelfare).
It’s the first such guidance to be issued by any chief rabbi, and will hopefully become a template for tackling gender and sexual identity issues in religious communities.
Chief Rabbi Mirvis writes in his introduction to the report, “Our children need to know that at school, at home, and in the community, they will be loved and protected regardless of their sexuality or gender identity.” Who among us would deny this?
He goes on to explain that a priority for every school should be the well-being of its students, and that “numerous professional and lay leaders of our schools and many rabbis have shared” with him “their view that there is an urgent need for authoritative guidance which recognises the reality that there are young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students in our schools to whom we have a duty of care”. These students are struggling with their identities, and are often marginalised, bullied, even left with no choice but to leave their schools and communities. It doesn’t have to be this way.
As author Naomi Alderman wrote in an early response published in The Guardian, this LGBT+ report is “clever and pragmatic” because it “speaks the language of religious people” and does not seek to contradict Torah verses about homosexuality, or Talmudic attitudes to transgender people. That would have achieved nothing, for obvious reasons. The social progressives may long for conservative religious people to agree with their attitudes about gender and sexuality, but they won’t.
Rather, this report talks about the prohibition on bullying in Judaism, with humiliating someone considered as serious as murder. It discusses the Jewish obligation to do anything to save a life in the context of high rates of suicide among young LGBT+ people. It reminds readers that Judaism considers Leviticus’s injunction to “love your neighbour as yourself” to be the most important principle of the Torah. Essentially, this report says something very obvious and very important: whether or not you think the Torah forbids gay sex, you’re still obliged to be kind, thoughtful, and compassionate to all people.
It’s a reality that LGBT+ issues are a major fault line in nearly every religious community, including our own. Religious prohibitions against homosexuality cannot be wished out of existence, so it is not particularly surprising that orthodox Jewish leadership has seemed utterly helpless and incapable of bridging the divide, and making real progress when it comes to LGBT+ inclusion.
But perhaps that doesn’t need to be the case, and Orthodox Jewish communities can treat LGBT+ Jews with respect and love… officially. This is the message from Chief Rabbi Mirvis, and we need the same from South African religious leaders.
Not so very long ago, affirmation and approval was exactly what I needed and sought. Don’t we all? I remember what it was like to be an impressionable child attending an orthodox Jewish school (King David Victory Park), that while not particularly religious, still carefully toed the orthodox party line when it came to LGBT+ issues.
And what was that line? I suppose it was to pretend that gay people did not exist in Jewish communities, and especially not within the schools. Heaven forbid! Whilst we did not have homophobic leaders railing against the evils of homosexuals, there was no positive encouragement and support for LGBT+ students when I was at school.
A decade ago, King David schools practiced what amounted to a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when it came to all things LGBT+. The more religious, more conservative schools were – and are – naturally even less inclined to provide any home for LGBT+ students or teachers.
It is hugely encouraging and inspiring to see an office of a chief rabbi join forces with an organisation like Jewish gay rights organisation KeshetUK to bridge what seems like an intractable rift that could never be healed.
I’ve no doubt that Chief Rabbi Mirvis will come in for much criticism, if not outright attacks from many quarters. At the time of writing, he already has. For many social progressives, he won’t have gone far enough, and for many amongst conservative orthodoxy, he will have gone much too far. You can be sure that Chief Rabbi Mirvis has already been branded a blasphemous heretic who is endangering Jewish souls.
It’s easy to forget that great things can be achieved with the language of compromise. In this polarised age of identity politics and the outrage economy that is the modern media, it’s all too rare to see a middle ground emerging between two opposing camps. But real change is forged on the middle ground, when you don’t try to strip people of historical beliefs and practices overnight, but rather help shape those beliefs and practices into something less hurtful. This is what real leaders understand: that sometimes you have to speak the very language of those who hold different, even offensive views.
I’m waiting for our own leaders to follow Chief Rabbi Mirvis’ example of compassion and good sense and show official support for LGBT+ Jews. This would really give South African Jewish communities something to be proud of.