This Thursday a document called “Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community,” written by a group of three Orthodox rabbis and signed by Orthodox rabbis, educators, mental health professionals, and communal leaders, was released into the blogosphere. It lays out a set of principles on how to address the issue of homosexuality in the Orthodox Jewish world, an issue that Orthodox Judaism is struggling and grappling with today.
Somehow, the document manages to balance a very hard Orthodox stance on homosexuality with an emphasis on the importance of respect for homosexual people. Personally, I think it is important that the first principle is this:
All human beings are created in the image of God and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect (kevod haberiyot). Every Jew is obligated to fulfill the entire range of mitzvot between person and person in relation to persons who are homosexual or have feelings of same sex attraction. Embarrassing, harassing or demeaning someone with a homosexual orientation or same-sex attraction is a violation of Torah prohibitions that embody the deepest values of Judaism.
It sets the tone for a set of principles that seems to me to be based around the idea that no matter what one’s view on homosexuality is, homosexuals are people, and all people deserve respect and dignity—an important thing to remember, especially in the Orthodox world, where homophobic attitudes abound and homosexuals struggle for life with the fact that who they are by nature goes against what they have been taught. (A side note, kind of: Rabbi Blau, one of the creators of the document, moderated a panel on the issue of being gay in the Orthodox community at Yeshiva University a couple of years ago.)
But again, the document does take a hard stance: it says that heterosexual marriage is “the ideal model and sole legitimate outlet for human sexual expression”; that all male and female same-sex sexual interactions are prohibited; that because an “entire congregation must be fully comfortable with having that person serve as its representative,” homosexuals most likely cannot serve in many religious offices; and that Judaism “cannot give its blessing and imprimatur to Jewish religious same-sex commitment ceremonies and weddings, and halakhic values proscribe individuals and communities from encouraging practices that grant religious legitimacy to gay marriage and couplehood.” These statements make it clear that the people signing the document are not interested in compromising on the idea that the Torah prohibits homosexual relations.
Even so (and I know I’m going back and forth here, but I think that is the point), many of those very statements are qualified to show the empathy and compassion that the signers want other people to exhibit. For example, immediately after saying that homosexual relations are prohibited it says: “But it is critical to emphasize that halakha only prohibits homosexual acts; it does not prohibit orientation or feelings of same-sex attraction, and nothing in the Torah devalues the human beings who struggle with them.” I think that this line is a very important one because it provides legitimacy to homosexuals and their feelings, something that should not be overlooked, as in many communities homosexuals are pushed towards therapy treatments to try and push them towards becoming heterosexuals. In fact, this document addresses those therapies and affirms homosexual people’s rights to refuse to undergo those treatments, something that I personally find to show compassion and acceptance.
Update (7/26/10): However, there are still many problems with the document: namely, that it seems to be somewhat of an apology for the current Jewish laws rather than a tangible idea for the future. Rather than discussing the biblical prohibition and dealing with it, the statement just takes it as it currently is and apologizes for it. Yes, creating a document like this is a very difficult and precarious thing to do in the Orthodox world, and I do think that this is a step in the right direction by emphasizing sensitivity and caring towards all human beings. However, I wrote this update after thinking about it and realizing that I’m not sure that is enough: I’m not sure that Orthodoxy will ever allow homosexual marriage or condone homosexual relations because of the prohibition in the Torah, but I’m also not sure if not allowing it can continue in the world we live in indefinitely. I think that given the fact that this seems progressive for the Orthodox community, this is definitely a positive document and is definitely a good way to get discussions generated about how the Orthodox community should deal with homosexuality (the growing list of Rabbis is a good sign), but I do not think that this is the final word on the issue.
What do you think? I’m really not sure, in case you couldn’t tell, so I would love to hear comments on this.