SOME of the most challenging conversations I have in my rabbinic role are with young religious Jews who disclose to me that they are gay, often without yet having told their own parents.
Although this issue is challenging for many people, religious or not, it is especially confronting for religious Jews because of how deeply they value the Torah which forbids the form of intimacy they naturally desire.
This challenge is compounded by the fact that these young Jews grow up in the religious world which views marriage as central to religious practice. Yet when they reach marriageable age they know instinctively that marrying the opposite sex will likely lead to a loveless marriage, or worse.
Sadly, it is for this reason that the majority of gay religious Jews that I’ve counselled over the past 14 years ultimately decide to leave the religious community entirely. This occurs within many religious families I know and anyone who values the time-honoured religious tenets of our faith should view this outcome as tragic.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can and should be encouraging gay religious Jews to stay connected to their faith to the best of their ability. Indeed, fundamental to Jewish belief is that the “all or nothing” attitude towards religious practice is not an approach adopted by halachah. Although it’s true that halachah will not change its stance on the prohibition of sexual interaction between two people of the same sex (Leviticus 18:22), it can and does encourage the observance of as many other mitzvot as possible. So what can be done to ensure these kids remain part of their communities without having to bear the indignity of a dishonest marriage?
One way to achieve this is through the formulation of sensitive, clear halachic guidelines to help rabbis and others assist same-sex attracted religious Jews to remain part of the Orthodox community. Indeed, state-based rabbinical councils in Australia have produced guidelines for religious Community Security Group volunteers who wish to keep the laws of Shabbat while serving on duty in front of the shules, as well as guidelines for engaging in interfaith dialogue. Surely then the rabbinate can produce guidelines for an issue as important as ensuring our same-sex attracted youth maintain their rightful place in their community!
But these guidelines will not only assist the rabbis and religious educators who play a critical role in the Orthodox community. More importantly they will provide much-needed hope for young same-sex attracted Jews who may view themselves as outliers of the very communities in which they were raised.
And it’s for this reason that the Rabbinical Council of Australia and New Zealand (RCANZ) has undertaken to produce these much-needed guidelines in the coming months.
These guidelines will be an extremely practical resource. And importantly, they are not without precedent. Last year Orthodox Jewish schools across the UK and beyond welcomed a set of landmark guidelines for the wellbeing of same-sex attracted students attending religious day schools. Produced under the outstanding leadership of Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, the said guidelines assist teachers, students, parents and other stakeholders in the educational system to support these students with love and respect, all in accordance with halachah.
While those guidelines focus primarily on the school environment, the guidelines to be produced by the RCANZ will focus on the synagogue, religious community and home environments with the goal of trying to help same-sex attracted Jews maintain their rightful connection to the religious community.
To assist in the production of these guidelines, all member rabbis of the RCANZ have been invited to submit in question form the issues in this area for which they require clarity. Young religious Jews who are same-sex attracted as well as their parents and family are also encouraged to submit questions (some already have) whose answers will form part of the guidelines. They may do so by contacting me directly with full assurance that all correspondence will be received the strictest of confidence.
In terms of funding, in May 2019 I participated at the annual LaunchPad Retreat, a three-day gathering exploring innovation in Jewish life. Following on from that inspiring experience Doron Abramovici, a fellow participant, and I applied for and were awarded a ‘Dave Grant’ that provides seed funding for new initiatives stimulating community. We are very grateful to LaunchPad for this significant investment enabling us to develop these guidelines.
I am equally grateful to my colleagues on the RCANZ executive for overseeing the halachic aspects of this project. Let us hope that this project, together with other similar initiatives, will contribute towards the fulfilment of another famous verse in Leviticus (19:18) – “And you shall love your fellow as yourself.”
Rabbi Yaakov Glasman is the president of the Rabbinical Council of Australia and New Zealand.