Glimmers of Gay Tolerance Among Orthodox Jews

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday August 25, 2009

Orthodox Judaism generally rejects gays as being deliberately "perverse" or defiant of God's law. But some among the Orthodox community are beginning to offer a different approach to gay men: offer them wives and therapy, even while allowing them to have celibate relationships with male significant others.

That is a concept that, when compared with other ideas set forth by the Orthodox community, seems radical.

Indeed, some Orthodox sects refuse to speak of gays, or even to admit that gays exist. In many cases, Orthodox factions deny that homosexuality is a sexual orientation, seeing it as a flouting of God's law that should be punished.

In the wake of the shooting that left two young people dead at a Tel Aviv center for gay youth, a writer for the Web site Tzofer indicated a belief that the shooter had only gotten a good start: Tzofer contributor Yisrael Artzi called for the center's management to face a firing squad, reported the San Francisco Sentinel in an Aug. 21 article.

Artzi was responding to a demand for a retraction of an earlier article that appeared under his byline, in which the content of a letter from an unidentified writer was posted.

The letter assumed that the people running the gay youth center were molesting the youths who turned to the center, and called for an investigation and criminal charges against the center's management.

Rather than offer any retraction, Artzi compared gays to animals, and railed on GLBT visibility, writing, "These perverts take everything out into the street, into the public domain.

"A child, religious or secular, doesn't need to know they exist," Artzi added.

But other Orthodox rabbis have begun to look at homosexuality as an innate aspect of gays, rather than a choice to be deliberately offensive to God.

A San Francisco Sentinel article from Aug. 25 that reprinted an article from reported that Rabbi Menachem Burstein had a comparatively compassionate view on gays.

Burstein did not endorse GLTB visibility--"I say to them, remain in the closet and I will make every effort to build as large and respectable a closet as possible for you," he was quoted as saying--but he did offer the opinion that a small fraction of gays were not simply acting out in perverse defiance, but were inherently attracted to others of the same gender.

Burstein reckoned that those souls also deserved pastoral care. "I believe these are a small number, but we should not forsake them," the article quoted him as saying.

Burstein approached the issue from the perspective of being in charge of a fertility group, the Puah Institute; it was from the point of view of trying to help gay observant Jews become family men that Burstein offered his thoughts, and suggested that perhaps two men could be in a relationship and not break religious law--as long as they remained celibate.

Meantime, Burstein suggested, one or both men could marry, with the aim of procreation.

Part of the arrangement, however, would entail therapy from a group dedicated to "helping" religious gays.

The article quoted Burstein as saying that his fertility group is "committed to finding a solution for every part of society."

Moreover, Burstein supposed that although "a rabbi cannot change the prohibition of [sexual intimacy between men]," he could work around that proscription creatively and constructively.

Gay sex, the Rabbi noted, is forbidden as a matter of Scripture, saying, "it is from the Torah."

However, "Once that is accepted, then we can look for a solution within those parameters."

The relative acceptance of gays from an Orthodox Rabbi such as Burstein has its roots in the 1970s, according to an article at Wikipedia.

The article notes that Rabbi Norman Lamm considered gays to exist along a continuum, with some merely acting out ("perverse" heterosexuals, in the more traditional view), while for others it was a matter of a passing phase, whereas still others truly are inherently homosexual.

Lamm compared such inherent homosexual impulses to suicidal tendencies and claimed that while they were not "morally netural," the person suffering them was "mentally ill" and therefore needed "pastoral compassion, psychological understanding, and social sympathy."

Generally speaking, those among the Orthodox tradition who do accept that gays genuinely experience deep-seated and involuntary sexual attraction toward other men tend to advocate for their "curing" through therapy.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.