Rabbis Speak at Conference on Gays in Orthodoxy

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Rabbis Speak at Conference on Gays in Orthodoxy

This week there was a major event in modern Jewish history—a group of modern Orthodox rabbis have done what advocates for Orthodox gays and lesbians say would have been unthinkable as recently as five years ago: They spoke at a conference on the treatment of gay, lesbian and transgender people in Orthodox communities. Present were four prominent Orthodox rabbis who participated in “Faith, Desire and Psychotherapy”, a conference held April 19 at Columbia University that marked the first time rabbis and mental health researchers came together in a public discussion about homosexuality and Orthodoxy. A similar discussion was held in 2009 at Yeshiva University but without Orthodox rabbinic participation.

Regarding gays and lesbians, change has come slowly to the Orthodox community. Actually the Orthodox maintain that homosexual relationships are forbidden under Jewish law (halacha). Therefore there is great tension between the limitations of religious law and the inclusivity that is sought by gay Jewish activists and those that support them and this was addressed at the conference. Present were some 120 social workers, therapists, students and rabbis. Rabbi Shmuel Goldin who is the former president of the centrist Orthodox Rabbinical Conference of America stated that the we live in a world where people care about people. This is one of the values of Judaism and denying that is not good.

Other speakers included Rabbi Mark Dratch, the RCA’s executive vice president; Rabbi Shaul Robinson, the leader of the Modern Orthodox Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York; and Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, a faculty member at the liberal Orthodox rabbinical school Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. There were other important Orthodox Jews present as observors. Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, the former executive vice president of the Orthodox Union who also holds a doctorate in psychology. He says the reason he attended was to learn more about the situation and what was going on. He further remarked that there is no endorsement for any specific program now and the situation is simply be studied at the present (and this is still a good more than it would have been say, even five years ago).

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In 2010, Rabbi Nathaniel Helga authored a declaration, signed by over 100 Orthodox rabbis, which called for the inclusion of gays as “full members” of the Orthodox community. The statement emphasized that while Jewish law forbids gay sex, it “does not prohibit orientations or feelings of same-sex attraction, and nothing in the Torah devalues the human beings who struggle with them.” There was a rebuttal from over 200 Orthodox rabbis and it was called the Torah Declaration. In it homosexual inclinations are described as being “changeable.” At this latest conference, this was rejected by mental health professionals, namely Jack Drescher, who has helped develop the American Psychiatric Association’s positions on sex and gender diagnoses, and Warren Throckmorton, a prominent former supporter of conversion therapy who now condemns it.

Quite expectedly, the rabbis present were uneasy. Dratch stated the he spoke only for himself and not for the Rabbinical Council of America while Goldin said that he had already been contacted by one or maybe two of his Orthodox colleagues who were at the conference. Goldin believes that being labeled causes fear and went on to state that by opening up for discussions like these could affect how rabbis are seen.

Work on this conference had actually been going on for two years. Psychologist Alan Slomowitz discovered two years ago that the only research being done in the Jewish community was done by groups which favor the gay movement and so he teamed up with Levovitz and fellow psychologist Allison Feit to plan the conference. Levovitz does not think that being gay or transgender is in conflict with religious Orthodox principles or that that should be a change in halacha. The rabbis present agreed with him that if” a gay person wants to be part of the Orthodox community or not, he or she should be supported and encouraged.” He went on to say that the Orthodox movement tries to be as inclusive as possible but there is the question as to how to go about this without approving the behavior. The idea is to “show love and show that people are fully part of the community.“ Obviously there is no one answer.

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