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Rabbinical apology advances inclusivity

  • Prof David Bilchitz
Just before Yom Kippur, seven senior modern Orthodox religious leaders apologised to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) persons. This act of repentance sought to address and counter the abusive and insulting attitudes that many rabbis in the Orthodox community have actively promoted against LGBTI persons.
by PROF DAVID BILCHITZ | Nov 16, 2016

Rabbi Dr Benny Lau, a major figure in the modern Orthodox community in Israel, had criticised the pejorative speech of a senior army rabbi against lesbian and gay persons. Rabbi Lau asked his community to welcome others who are different, to be “inclusive people”, to “open our ranks”.

This healing gesture by these senior rabbinical figures struck a chord with me, and sparked a memory of an incident at an Orthodox synagogue I used to attend over 20 years ago. One Friday night, the rabbi decided to address the question of same-sex sexuality and I was hopeful that, perhaps, some understanding and humanity would emerge.

Unfortunately, the sermon was in the “fire and brimstone” mould and consisted of over 10 minutes of condemnations and abusive statements that diminished the dignity of lesbian and gay persons.

His sermon suggested that no-one in the large audience was a member of that group. This was a seminal moment for me as I could not attend a synagogue with a religious leader who used his words as weapons against a vulnerable group, among whom I count myself a member.

I decided I would not return voluntarily unless there was some overriding reason (like a family simcha) why I should. Sadly, the rabbi - as far as I know - has never apologised to anyone in the LGBTI community for his hurtful words.

Recently, I heard of another similar incident at a large Orthodox synagogue in Johannesburg. This time, however, there was an outcry by many members of the congregation, so much so, that the rabbi - to his credit - issued an apology from the pulpit the following week.

Importantly, this time there was a recognition that maligning a group of people was unacceptable and would not be tolerated. It illustrated the power that exists in solidarity and the importance that allies - in this case, most of whom were straight - can play in ending unacceptable conduct.

Indeed, this outcry is indicative of a revolution that has taken place in the Jewish community (and the world) over the past 30 years or so in relation to attitudes to LGBTI persons. Greater understanding - through advances in the natural and social sciences - has led to the recognition that there is no moral or religious flaw in those who are gay or lesbian: it is simply a natural fact about the world that a sizeable proportion of humanity is attracted romantically, emotionally, spiritually and sexually to form relationships with members of the same sex.

It is cruel and inhumane to condemn people for forming consensual, loving relationships that flow from their natural orientations.

Similarly, there are also natural diversities around sex and gender: the world is not just male and female but there are variations in the physical anatomies of persons (those whose physical anatomy does not strictly conform to the male/female binary are often referred to as “intersex”) and in how people self-identify with their genders (some people self-identify with a different gender to their physical sex at birth and are often referred to as “transgender”).

Surgically intervening to force people to conform to a set anatomy (where medically unnecessary) or condemning them for living out their gender identity in a more authentic manner displays a lack of understanding and is often deeply harmful.

The modern understanding and acceptance of LGBTI persons has, of course, created challenges for an ancient system such as Judaism. That system, of course, was developed at a time where scientific understanding was much more limited.

Take, for instance, persons who could not hear or speak - generally, such persons were regarded as having cognitive deficiencies and thus a number of legal disabilities in Jewish law. A well-known anecdote describes how a highly respected rabbi, the Ketav Sofer, visited the Vienna Institute that treated deaf and mute persons and was astonished at the accomplishments of the pupils there. He expressly doubted whether the traditional approach in Jewish law applied to such persons.

The example highlights how advancements in empirical understandings can lead to a shift in Jewish law - and the same is (and should be) true with LGBTI persons.

Reform Judaism places greater weight on modern understandings and so its positions have changed more rapidly fully to accept and celebrate LGBTI persons.

Orthodox Judaism itself has not been untouched: at the minimum, there is less of a desire to condemn and more of an attempt to understand and connect with those who are LGBTI. The power of hurtful words is increasingly being recognised for its ability to encourage bullying at schools, to harm the self-image of individuals and, in extreme cases, even to bring about self-harm behaviours such as suicide.

Ultimately, what is crucial is the recognition of shared humanity: lesbian and gay people simply wish to express their capacity to love and connect with significant others just like straight people do; intersex and transgender people simply want to be respected for who they are just like those whose sex and gender identities are more binary.

The apology by the seven Orthodox leaders in Israel was a gesture of reconciliation, of reaching out to recognise the value of every person. These leaders have not stopped at the apology but continue to build their communities in an inclusive manner.

Let us hope that our religious, educational and communal leaders in South Africa will follow suit and strengthen our unique community through embracing the diversity of all who make it up. 


David Bilchitz is a professor of fundamental rights at the University of Johannesburg and director of SAIFAC, a leading a research institute. He is also chairman of Limmud International.


1 Comment

  1. 1 David B 18 Nov
    Isn't that interesting -- A Rabbinical Apology to the LGBTi's but never a word about excluding Conservative and Reform Jews fro their ' so called' Community 
    They simply disregard the travesty of justice inflicted on 'lower class ' Jews , who choose to be a little different in their chosen way of worshipping  , but jump to it when the LBGTI' s are involved.
       Bigger voices and currently more vocal and ' in fashion' voices are heard and reacted to, with alacrity by the hypocritical Rabbinate.   


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