Posts filed under ‘Gender’
April 24th and 25th
Being Frum and Gay
This weekend, the Orthodox Community at Penn (OCP) and JQYouth (JQY), a group that provides support to LGBT Orthodox Jews (www.JQYouth.org) collaborated to develop a shabbaton aimed at addressing issues that gay and lesbian Jews face within the Orthodox community. The shabbaton built upon the format and ideas originally presented at the “Being Gay in the Orthodox World” panel that was held at Yeshiva University this December.
On Friday night, the invited speakers from JQYouth shared their stories in a general panel session. The evening began with a brief statement by one of the organizers from the OCP, and a message from Rabbi Mordy Friedman, the Orthodox Rabbi at Penn, framing the shabbaton as a weekend intended to raise awareness of issues that already exist within the Orthodox community, and that it is not intended as a forum to discuss halacha (Jewish law). The panelists then each discussed topics ranging from their experiences coming out to family members and rabbis, to issues faced by Orthodox Jewish lesbians, forming communities for LGBT Orthodox Jews, and forming more inclusive Orthodox communities. There were over 150 people in attendance, and the audience was generally supportive of the speakers, applauding after each panelist spoke. The panelists were then asked questions from the audience ranging from whether they envisioned themselves forming families, whether being gay and Orthodox creates a crisis of faith, and whether there are generational or communal differences in terms of levels of tolerance that the panelists have experienced. The session only came to an end after the Hillel building needed to close for the night.
After morning services, Rabbi Friedman held a brief survey of contemporary literature on homosexuality. Taking a neutral stance on the issue, Rabbi Friedman reviewed responses spanning from Rav Moshe Feinstein’s t’shuvah (response) stating that homosexuality reflects a deliberate act of rebellion against God, to contemporary approaches of Rabbi Chaim Rapoport and Rav Yuval Sherlo, that go so far as to deal with questions such as whether lesbian couples should wear hair coverings and observe laws of ritual purity.
In the afternoon, four sessions on various topics relating to homosexuality in the Orthodox community were held. From 5:00pm to 6:00pm a session on ally training was held by Nicole Riley, Shaina Adams-El Guabli, and Fran De La Tor, three straight female allies of the LGBT community who have had experience leading similar workshops in the past. Nicole, Fran, and Shaina facilitated conversation regarding LGBT-specific language and stereotypes of the LGBT community, as well as group exercises to provide various strategies. These strategies included how to respond when a friend comes out, and when one overhears derogatory comments, such as “That’s Gay,” used in different social circles.
Simultaneously, Josh Teplitsky and Justin Spiro held a discussion on language as boundary. During this session they discussed a statement that Josh has heard several times after speaking at the Yeshiva University panel that “We should provide sympathy to the struggling homosexual.” Josh and Justin engaged the audience in a discussion of what the word struggle means as well as when it is appropriate to provide and withhold sympathy for others. The audience discussed how religious struggles are not unique to LGBT Orthodox Jews and discussed their own struggles with issues of faith and sexuality. During the workshop, one of the audience members expressed her frustration with that statement and discussed how she was upset by the question posed to the panelists the previous night about whether they’ve experienced a crisis of faith. She stated that the crisis of faith shouldn’t only apply to the gay individuals in the community. Instead, she suggested that the crisis of faith should apply to the entire Orthodox community because there are community members who are suffering because of their sexual orientation. This sentiment was echoed by others present for this discussion as well as other discussions over the course of the evening.
Josh reiterated this point by making a distinction between a psychological struggle characterized by an individual experiencing distress over his or her sexual identity, and a philosophical/intellectual struggle that involves grappling with the halachik implications of a gay identity. Josh concluded by stating that when we view it as a philosophical struggle, then it belongs to the entire community rather than the homosexual individuals themselves.
From 6:00pm to 7:00pm Chasiah Haberman, founder of Tirtzah, a community of frum queer women, held a discussion on halachik questions facing Orthodox LGBT people. The thrust of the session was to build awareness of the technical challenges that a gay Torah-observer faces in a religion whose commandments presume heterosexual attraction. With Chasiah’s help, the group managed to pinpoint several areas such as mechitza (separation), nida (purity), shomer negia (touching of the opposite sex), and tzniut (modesty) that pose an interpretive challenge to the gay observant Jew. Chasiah rendered the discussion universal by asking everyone to mention a personal halachik challenge, demonstrating that it is all observant Jews, not only gay observant Jews, who struggle to observe halacha. The session was concluded with a reading from Jewish scholar Eliezer Berkowitz. Berkowitz tells an anecdote from Raba in which the Babylonian sage expresses that halacha is alive and eternal, and is always interpreted and reinterpreted by the Sages of the generation.
At the same time, Erez Harari and Chaim Levin held a panel discussion on reparative therapy. Erez, a student at Fordham working on a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and co-founder of JQY, discussed the history of therapies aimed at treating homosexuality, as well as the theory and research behind modern day reparative therapy. Erez critiqued the theory behind reparative therapy and the research that has been published in support of it. Erez then discussed the potential for harm when engaging in these treatments. Chaim followed with his personal experiences being involved in reparative therapy for several years and reviewed the techniques used to try to alter his sexual orientation. He concluded by mentioning how he was led to blame himself for not trying hard enough when his sexual orientation failed to change, as well as how his community ended up blaming him for “choosing” to be gay once he decided to stop attending treatment.
After the evening meal, Chasiah gave a speech to a standing room only crowd of over a hundred people. Chasiah discussed the notion of “hating your brother in your heart,” which appeared in this week’s Torah portion, and how this verse is interpreted to mean that you are so hateful towards fellow Jew that you aren’t even willing to engage him or her in dialogue about what it is that’s making you hateful. She then thanked the crowd for demonstrating ahavat yisroel (love of your fellow Jew) by being willing to attend the event and engage in a dialogue about these issues.
The shabbaton concluded with a screening of the film V’ahavta (And thou shalt love), an award-winning short film about a gay yeshiva student in Israel, followed by a discussion on how to create a more inclusive Orthodox Community. This discussion, moderated by Matthew Feczko and Isaac Alkolomber, two members of the OCP and JQY, generated a number of different suggestions by the audience, who seemed generally in favor of working towards creating a more welcoming environment for gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews at Penn. Suggestions ranged from reaching out to those who seem isolated, to speaking publicly against homophobic statements and creating joint events with J-Bagel, the gay Jewish group at Penn. A distinction was made during the discussion between implicit and explicit methods of inclusion, and the importance of understanding that for an Orthodox gay person, the implicit message is often one of exclusion, and that explicit messages are often necessary to make someone feel fully included. Some of the speakers expressed the hope that this weekend becomes a template for future programs at other campuses, schools, and synagogues. Isaac then closed the discussion by posing a question to the crowd, asking them how each of them plan on conveying this message of inclusiveness once the shabbaton is over.
The events of the weekend were widely considered a success drawing many people from diverse communities on campus. The event, according to one of the organizers, Isaac Setton, was a kiddush hashem as many people from many different backgrounds saw the Orthodox community coming together in support of the LGBT community. The Orthodox Community at Penn was able to organize and facilitate many discussions about the future of Orthodoxy and Orthodox education. One participant remarked, “One day, the people being educated at this event will sit on the board of shuls and schools and it will be up to them to make sure that when this issue comes up it is not a shock and is dealt with properly.” The people who attended the event were all glad they were provided with the opportunity to engage with this issue.
In an article for Yediot Achroniyot, Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, Rosh Yeshiva of the Hesder Yeshiva in Petach Tikvah, explores the exclusion of the “other” in the orthodox community. He argues that “The main issue facing the Torah of Israel today is the relationship with the ‘Other’. ” It is not only the “Othering” of the Gentile that we grapple with as a community, he says- but the “Othering” of our fellow Jews. He emphasizes that “those who are attracted to members of their own gender cannot be removed from the community.” He explores the idea, which has been written about by Dina Berman and Tamar Gan-Zvi Bick of Bat-Kol, that Pesach Sheini offers us a perspective that allows us to keep Halacha as it has been traditionally understood intact while finding a place for GLBT people in the Orthodox community. “We recognize”, he says, ” in Halacha there are many instances where the Halacha develops in order to redeem a human being from crisis. This development is always a limited, temporary one, and does not destroy the structural foundation. So it is with Pesach Sheini- Pesach Sheini does not speak towards changing the essence of Pesach, but about a solution to a crisis, in a way which is described well by the article…” By engaging honestly with the questions facing the “Other” in the Jewish community, he argues, we are able to find “at least partial redemption for a painful reality.”
On Monday night in Manhattan, members of the Tirtzah community attended a community-wide memorial and prayer service for those who were killed, physically and psychologically injured by the attack in Tel-Aviv. Chasiah Haberman offered the following introduction to psalm 130 on behalf of the Tirtzah community, of which she is a founding member.
When I was younger, my father told me a story about a man who committed a crime. He was caught, and taken to prison. When he arrived- the parts of his body began to argue with each other. The head accused the hands of committing the crime, the hands accused the feet of getting them to the scene, and the feet accused the head of planning it all. They were all right, my father explained, except that it makes no sense for a person to fail to understand himself as one man.
But, sometimes, in a time of crisis, we dissociate. We point fingers, we blame those who are really part of us, saying that we have nothing to do with them. We forget our interrelatedness. In Masechet Nedarim, the Jerusalem talmud teaches us that if a man cuts his finger by mistake we do not go to that man and rebuke him- we know that a man does not intentionally cut his own finger. And so it should be in the life of a nation, we are like the parts of one body- a pain in our finger is felt in our entire being.
And since last Saturday night, we as a people have shared a pain. We have seen two young people shot and killed, and many others injured. We have seen a community of gay young adults and teenagers, who came together to support one another, to bring kindness and understanding to one another- targeted by violence. This pain- as pain often does, has brought us together and has driven us apart.
Some cannot imagine how an attack on a gay center in tel aviv has anything to do with them. Some of our leaders have been silent. Some individuals have, unbelievably, threatened additional violence.
But for many of us, this has been a time to come together. Jews all over the world recited Tehillim- and in particular psalm 130, which we are about to read. The day after the attack- myself and the women of Tirtzah, a community of religiously and halachically committed Jewish Lesbian, Bisexual and Trans women gathered in a room in this JCC for our usual meeting. We began with Tehillim, and then dedicated our study to the memory of those who were killed, and to healing for those who were hurt and who were injured.
Online- people from all over the world connected to stand in solidarity with the victims of the attack, to mourn together and to pray together, and to comfort one another. In New York and Tel-Aviv, in Boston, In Chicago and in Germany, people came together from many different walks of life- to speak, to recite tehillim, to light candles. Rabbi Linzer of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah wrote a prayer which was recited in many Synogogues in the United States this shabbat, including the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, where I prayed, with my girlfriend, this past Shabbat.
All over the world, many of us turned to the words of Psalm 130 (which we will soon recite). Our natural response to pain and tragedy might be to cast blame, to distance ourselves from one another, to live in fear and isolation- But the psalmist reminds us that none of us is entirely blameless
” Im avonot tishmor Ya- adonai mi ya’amod”.
“If you hold on to our sins, Oh G-d, Lord, who will stand”.
The psalmist turns to G0d, the merciful redeemer, and asks that we be lifted up- that God guide us past our current imperfections.
This is a time in which we need, as a community, to come together, to reawaken our sense that we are one body- one that cannot disown any of its parts. It is a time for each of us to think about what we can do to create a world that is more caring, a safer world for the gay teenagers who met in the gay community center in tel- aviv, and for each and every member of our communities.
So now, as we recite psalm 130, we pray for: the dead, the wounded, their families, communities. We pray for those who were hurt in body and in spirit by this attack. And we ask God to give us the strength not to dissociate, but to continue to reach out towards one another, despite all of our limitations, with love and with mercy.
I was very lucky- and when I first came out, I was a member of a wonderful congregation that made welcoming all people a priority. That communal support has made it possible for me, as a lesbian, to feel supported in my choice to live as an Orthodox Jew. But many queer Orthodox Jews are not as lucky as I was, and do not find themselves supported and welcomed in their congregations. Some are even actively excluded, making it extremely difficult to remain observant of the mitzvot and strong in the beliefs of Orthodox Judaism.
Recently the Welcoming Synagogues Project surveyed Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal, Secular Humanist and Unaffiliated Synagogues about the degree to which they welcomed queer members. They found that among the Synagogues surveyed ” The majority of rabbis in congregations across denominations think their synagogues are already welcoming of lesbians and gays, but could do better. The majority of Orthodox respondents do not perceive their congregations to be welcoming.”
I do not know whether the Orthodox Rabbis surveyed considered this state of affairs to be a positive one. I hope they understand, that it is an area where there is much work to be done- and that as leaders of Congregations it is the job of Rabbis to create spaces that are conducive to the spiritual and religious development of every Jew- regardless of sexual or gender orientation.
Rabbi Steve Greenberg, in an article in the Forward, suggests that the fact that Orthodox Rabbis responded to the survey at all showed a “willingness to engage the question”. I hope that is the case, and that as a result, Orthoodox shul Rabbis will find themselves delving more deeply into the the Jewish tradition, and coming to a greater understanding of the needs of all of their congregants.
Drisha Institute in New York City is offering a weekly co-ed class this summer that is open to the public and may be of interest to our readers who are interested in issues of gender, clothing and sexuality. Chasiah Haberman will be teaching “Pink Shirts and Pinstripe Trousers: Clothing and Gender Construction Halakha.” Here is the class description from Drisha’s site:
Pink Shirts and Pinstripe Trousers: Clothing and Gender Construction Halakha
What do women wear? What constitutes a uniquely male garment? Is modesty a gender-specific concept? How do assumptions about gender shape ideas of appropriate dress for men and women? We will study both traditional and contemporary halakhic literature.
Tuesday, 7:45 – 9:15 p.m.
Financial assistance is available. Space is still available. This class is co-ed.
Register soon, as the class starts on July 1st!
Posted by tirtzah.