Religion & Jewish Life

Orthodox unsure how to react to anti-gay violence, discrimination

Meeting with an Orthodox group in Brooklyn, New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino, seated, saw an audience receptive to his message that children shouldn't be "brainwashed" into thinking being gay is OK, Oct. 10, 2010. (Creative Commons/azipaybarah

NEW YORK (JTA) — When the Republican candidate for New York governor, Carl Paladino, addressed an Orthodox crowd on Sunday about his opposition to gay pride parades and how children shouldn’t be “brainwashed” into thinking being gay is OK, he clearly thought he’d find a receptive audience.

He was right.

Orthodox viewpoints on homosexuality are derived from the Torah, which is clear in its condemnation of male gay sex, and Orthodox leaders almost uniformly oppose celebrating gay identity.

It was that opposition that prompted The New Jersey Jewish Standard, a Jewish weekly in a heavily Orthodox area of northern New Jersey, to apologize earlier this month for offending Orthodox sensibilities by printing a gay wedding announcement  (though the newspaper later switched course, expressing regret for its hasty apology).

“Sometimes people feel that they have the right to make their choices and then to obligate others to celebrate their choices,” said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, a past president of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County in northern New Jersey. “We believe that we cannot celebrate these choices.”

Goldin was the rabbi who in a meeting with The Jewish Standard warned the paper that its same-sex wedding announcement might alienate Orthodox readers.

Yet on other issues involving gays beyond sex — discrimination, anti-gay violence — the Orthodox community appears unsure about how to act, if at all.

While Conservative and Reform leaders issued statements condemning anti-gay violence following a spate of recent gay suicides in the United States evidently prompted by bullying and the Oct. 3 beating of a Bronx, N.Y., man thought to be gay, Orthodox voices largely have been silent.

“We don’t issue statements in response to every single incident on every single situation that happens across the board,” said Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs.

The dilemma for Orthodox leaders is how to condemn anti-gay activity without being seen as endorsing the “mainstreaming of the homosexual lifestyle,” as one Orthodox spokesman put it. For many that means not addressing the issue of anti-gay violence or discrimination at all. For others it means addressing the issue only when pressed or absolutely necessary.

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, spiritual leader of one of the biggest Modern Orthodox synagogues in New Jersey, Bnai Yeshurun of Teaneck, said he is “against violence against any person or group,” but he declined to address violence against gays specifically.

“I can’t say more than I’ve said,” he told JTA.

When Yeshiva University, the flagship institution of Modern Orthodoxy, held a forum last December on “Being Gay in the Orthodox World,” the president of the university, Richard Joel, declined to attend. Instead he issued a statement warning that the event could “send the wrong message” about the Torah’s opposition to homosexuality.

“We want to reiterate the absolute prohibition of homosexual relationships according to Jewish law,” Joel wrote in a statement co-authored with Rabbi Yona Reiss, the dean of YU’s rabbinical school. “We are committed to providing halakhic guidance and sensitivity with respect to all challenges confronted by individuals within our broader community, including homosexual inclinations, in a discreet, dignified and appropriate fashion.”

Joel did not respond to multiple requests from JTA for interviews for this story.

Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, which represents the black-hat segment of Orthodoxy, said the traditional Orthodox community is appalled by hate violence against anyone, including gays, but that the community is also “deeply dismayed at the ongoing and increasingly successful public and media campaign to ‘mainstream’ the homosexual lifestyle.”

It might have been insensitive for Paladino to reiterate his opposition to homosexual lifestyles in the immediate wake of anti-gay violence, Shafran said, but that was “a matter of sensitivity to feelings.”

For his part Paladino, after his remarks to the Orthodox audience in Brooklyn made national news, was unapologetic. But the candidate also took pains to say that discrimination against gays was “horrible” and should not be tolerated.

Some Orthodox Jews say that stance — expressing distaste for homosexuality but condemning anti-gay discrimination — should be a model for the Orthodox community.

Goldin, the spiritual leader of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, N.J., said he has spoken from the pulpit against anti-gay discrimination and encourages others to do so. Goldin also is the vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, the main modern Orthodox rabbinic organization.

“The Orthodox approach to gays in our community is guided by two principles that are somewhat conflicting,” Goldin said. “We believe in respect for all individuals regardless of their sexual orientation and stand adamantly against any physical, mental or social violence committed against them. At the same time we have a deep commitment to the integrity of Torah law, which clearly proscribes same-sex relationships.”

The Orthodox Union opposes same-sex marriages and is lobbying for religious groups to be exempted from a proposed federal law that would bar workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Asked about the recent gay suicides and the beating in the Bronx, Diament said, “We’re on record as being opposed to acts of violence and harassment, and certainly any criminal activity against individuals based on their identity or perceptions of their identity.”

For their part, Reform and Conservative leaders have had fewer qualms about speaking out, reflecting their movements’ stances on gay issues.

The Reform movement believes same-sex unions are “worthy of affirmation through appropriate Jewish ritual,” welcomes gay rabbis and cantors, and advocates for legalizing same-sex unions. The Conservative movement still officially forbids one specific sexual act between men, but now permits its clergy to officiate at same-sex ceremonies and allows gays and lesbians to become rabbis.

Following last month’s suicide by a Rutgers University student after his roommate posted video on the Internet showing him kissing another male, Rabbi Steven Wernick, the executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, wrote an open letter to Jewish teens and college students discussing how bullying is antithetical to Judaism and offering resources to adolescents feeling bullied or considering suicide.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said, “These tragedies underscore the dangerous consequences of bullying in general and ongoing public insensitivity to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. The Union encourages every congregation and school to create an anti-bullying program that addresses both sexual orientation and gender identity. We must not stand idly by and wait for the next tragedy to occur.”

Keshet, an organization that advocates for full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jews in the Jewish community, said it got more than 3,500 individuals and Jewish institutions to sign on to a pledge to end homophobic harassment in the community. Four hundred rabbis were among the signers.

“Our gay youth must know that our synagogues, communities and our rabbis welcome them,” Rabbi Andrew Sacks, a Conservative leader in Israel, wrote on his blog, Masorti Matters. “Religious leaders of all denominations must take the lead by speaking out.”