Sunday, February 24, 2008

Both gay and celibate: an Orthodox rabbi's difficult dilemma

JERUSALEM (AFP) — It is not illegal to be actively homosexual in Israel, but that does not mean it is accepted -- especially within the country's religious Orthodox community.
When a member of that community is also gay, the dilemma is complete.
"Religion does not prohibit a man from loving another man," says R, a gay and an Orthodox rabbi who dares not give his name because he might be branded an abomination if he were found out.
But there is a biblical injunction against a man "lying with a man as with a woman," as the saying goes. That ban, in the book of Leviticus, prescribes death for the wrongdoer.
Therein lies a dilemma for R, who is discreetly seeking to change the mindset about homosexuals among religious Jews, whom he characterises as homophobic and ignorant.
Even so R remains true to his religious faith, despite Israel decriminalising homosexuality in 1988.
The Bible says what it says, the Orthodox religious community stands by it, and that includes R himself.
Leviticus, one of the five books of the Torah, which contains Jewish law, says "you shall not lie with men, as with women; it is abomination. Neither shall you lie with any beast to defile yourself with it; nor shall any women stand before a beast to lie down to it; it is perversion."
"If a man also lies with men, as he lies with a women, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them."
R takes that injunction seriously. He lives with another observant Jewish man in what he describes as a romantic but celibate relationship, and one that is not flaunted in public.
Even so, R says "we are part of the religious world and we plan to stay there."
He reiterates his own celibacy and says that a group he has co-founded -- HOD -- toes the line on that.
However, R acknowledges that what gay religious Jews do in the privacy of their bedrooms is not something he can do anything about.
Earlier this month, in hopes of opening up dialogue with the Orthodox world and of helping people like them cope with their complicated lives, R and others launched a website --
HOD is the Hebrew acronym for religiously observant homosexuals; ironically, it is also a Hebrew word meaning "splendour".
R said "people who have homosexual tendencies suffer greatly, especially within the religious community. Many gays feel rejected not only by the Orthodox society, which does not look favourably upon their lifestyle, but also by God.
"We therefore must slowly find a way to broach and remedy this difficult situation.
"Speaking to gay men, rabbis, families and educators, helps us understand fully the sheer distress and anguish that religious gays feel. We cannot be obtuse to their suffering -- or the suffering of any human being for that matter."
The HOD site is not what one might consider stereotypically gay.
Its masthead does carry an abstract illustration of two men, side by side. They are both wearing kippas, the Jewish beanie, and one man's hand is resting on the other's shoulder in a sign of camaraderie.
But the site features articles on Jewish law (halacha) and carries the weekly readings from the Torah.
It also allows for virtual Q&A and gives a link where R may be contacted online or by telephone.
"We don't intend to vaunt our homosexuality and we won't be marching in any parades," HOD co-founder Itai told AFP, in a reference to so-called Gay Pride events held each year in cities around the world.
"What we want to do is carry out a silent revolution, not come out in the classic sense of the term," says the 28-year-old former rabbinical student.
"We are rejected by other homosexuals, who can't comprehend our desire to remain religious, and by the religious, who do not accept our homosexuality," Itai says.
Shortly after HOD's launch, Itai told YNetNews that it was innovative in its approach to homosexuality and religion.
"Up to now, the only website catering to the religious gay community was atzat-nefesh (, which was basically run by straight people and publicly stated that a religious person cannot be gay.
"They tried to 'turn' gay religious people straight, which is something we know cannot be done. We try to help people reconcile their religious beliefs and their sexual orientation."
The attitude of the Orthodox leadership towards homosexuals among the faithful is one of silent contempt. There are no calls for people to be stoned.
Itai told AFP that only one Orthodox rabbi, Yuval Sharlo, would even listen to these isolated people.
But even Sharlo, director of an important Talmudic school in Petah Tivka near Tel Aviv, draws a line.
"In spite of my clear sympathy to people who have 'alternate tendencies', the halacha point of view on this matter is unequivocal and cannot be changed," he wrote on HOD.
Itai agrees.
"It is not a matter of us calling halacha into question. Like all religious people we accept the stringent demands of Torah law and would gladly sacrifice ourselves on God's altar."
Even so, "the way gays are treated in the Orthodox world today violates many of the commandments of how man should treat his fellow man."

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