By Rabbi Steven Greenberg
This past spring, my partner and I moved to Cincinnati. Soon after we arrived, an Orthodox synagogue in town prohibited our attendance. The rabbi of the shul called apologetically to inform us that the ruling had come from a rabbi whose authority exceeded his own.
I decided to call this rabbi, who is the head of a prominent yeshiva and a respected halachic authority. I wanted to meet him personally to discuss the decision with him. He agreed to speak with me on the phone.
He said that he had heard that I advocated changing the Torah. I told him that this is not true, that in fact I am trying to find a way for people who are gay or lesbian to still be a part of Orthodox communities. I shared with him that people who are gay and lesbian who want to remain true to the Torah are in a great deal of pain. Many have just left the community. Some young gay people become so desperate they attempt suicide.
His reply: “Maybe it’s a mitzvah for them to do so.”
At first I was speechless. I asked for clarification, and yes, this is exactly what he meant. Since gay people are guilty of capital crimes, perhaps it might be a good idea for them to do the job themselves. For the rest of the conversation I was shaking, using every ounce of my strength to end the conversation without losing my composure.
His uncensored expression, one he might wish he hadn’t said, was surely beyond the pale in every in every way, even for the strictest of Orthodox rabbis. But, in retrospect, I am grateful to him for this transparent, if painful, honesty.
Whether it is said so baldly or not, for many in the Orthodox community it would be better for us to disappear, one way or another. When teenagers come to understand how intense the communal desire for their erasure is, how brutal it can be, they can easily give in to despair as a number of them did just last month.
I have hesitated to share this story for many reasons. I am a committed religious Jew and am indeed embarrassed to share negative portrayals of my own community. My instinct is to follow Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook’s adage: Avoid complaining about what other people do wrong and simply add goodness. But silence at this point is unacceptable. I can no longer stand passively by as the blood of my brothers and sisters is spilled.
To my colleagues, I say this: It is not possible to abstain from choosing. Either stand with the more than 170
Orthodox rabbis who have openly and proudly condemned homophobia and bigotry, while at the same time maintaining a traditionalist reading of the halacha regarding homosexuality, or stand with the rosh yeshiva who told me that teenage suicide is a mitzvah. Either we give a teen hope that a good life as a gay person is possible, in whatever religious community he or she lives, or we confirm his or her worst nightmares — and ours.
Now, it is fair to worry, as many Orthodox leaders do, that taking a stand against homophobia might be interpreted as approving of all homosexual behavior. It surely need not be, but more importantly, is the fear of misinterpretation worth risking the very lives of our kids?
Nor is it enough simply to decry bullying. Religious communities of all sorts need to make it possible for a 13-year-old to expect that life will be good. We have a duty to make it clear that if a teenager discovers herself to be gay, she can still dream of a happy future. Depriving young people of hope for the future is a deadly game.
Last month, more than 500 mourners attended a memorial for Seth Walsh, a 13-year-old from Tehachapi (near Bakersfield) who hung himself from a tree in his backyard Sept. 19. One classmate and friend, Jamie Elaine Phillips, told reporters that Seth had known he was gay and had been teased about it for years. “This year it got much worse,” she said. “People would say, ‘You should go kill yourself. You should go away. You’re gay, who cares about you?’ ”
There are at least three steps that my colleagues in the Orthodox rabbinate, and leaders of Orthodox organizations, can and should take at this time.
First, if they have not already done so, they should sign the Statement of Principles (http://www.bit.ly/cbthuc). Even those who think the document is too conservative ought to consider signing as a powerful rejoinder to the rash of recent gay teen suicides — at least seven young men in seven different states. As the statement itself says, “Embarrassing, harassing or demeaning someone with a homosexual orientation or same-sex attraction is a violation of Torah prohibitions that embody the deepest values of Judaism.” There is no better time to reaffirm this than now.
Second, I have been deeply disappointed to see so few Orthodox institutions represented on a recent letter, spearheaded by the LGBT advocacy group Keshet, condemning bullying and homophobia in the Jewish community. Signing this letter should be a no-brainer (http://www.bit.ly/ceUH4y). The letter says nothing about the contentious issues of same-sex marriage or homosexuality in Jewish law. It says that bullying is unacceptable. It is especially disappointing for Orthodox schools to quietly abstain from signing on.
Third, Orthodox institutions must immediately cut off any support or endorsement of so-called “reparative therapy,” which has been denounced by every professional medical and psychiatric association, and that has never worked for more than a sliver of “patients.” So long as we perpetuate the myth that homosexuality is a pathology to be cured, we encourage kids who find they cannot cure themselves to despair, and consider ending their lives.
According to a 2007 study, one in six LGBT teenagers considers suicide, and one in 20 actually attempts it. This is not a marginal problem affecting just a few depressed kids; it is an epidemic, spread by hatred and its most valuable ally, silence.
Whatever our opinions are regarding two verses in Leviticus, there is another that cannot be forgotten: Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.
Rabbi Steven Greenberg is a senior teaching fellow at the New York–based Clal — the National Center for Jewish Learning and Leadership, and the director of Orthodox programming at Nehirim. He is the author of “Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition.”
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