A First Step:LGBTQ+ and the Frum Community
By Rabbi Yisrael Motzen
She hadn’t spoken to her parents in twenty-seven years. Her siblings had intervened, her uncles and aunts had tried to reason with them, but her parents were adamant, their daughter is not lesbian.
When a child sits her parents down on the couch and announces that she has something to tell them, the confusing mix of emotions are overwhelming. “What did we do wrong? What will our friends think? Does she even know what she’s talking about? Who can we speak to? And of course, shidduchim?!” As the child slowly ventures out of her dark closet, her parents crawl into theirs. Many parents eventually find a way, balancing their beliefs with love for their child. Some parents never do.
Despite a lifetime of ignoring her every attempt to reconcile, on his deathbed, her father whispered to those gathered around him, “I want Chani* at my funeral.” They could not believe their ears and he must have noticed. “Please! Please ask Chani to attend my funeral.”
Chani chose to attend. It was evident from speaking to her that she had worked on herself extensively in what was likely hundreds of hours of therapy. She tried to understand her parents and was sympathetic to their choices. At the same time, she did not trivialize the deep hurt their choices caused her daily. Throughout the funeral, she stood close to her mother, but not too close, attempting to convey her willingness to talk if her mother wanted. It was a graceful dance. Unfortunately, there was no dancing partner.
On my drive home from the cemetery, I wondered: What if Chani had married a man? What if instead of telling her parents she was lesbian, she had informed them that she had decided to stop keeping Shabbos – would they have ostracized her?
I knew the answer. We all know the answer. Is there any justifiable reason that many shuls do not hesitate before giving aliyos to people who are not Shomer Shabbos, but there is an uproar if a gay man is given the same honor? I cannot imagine Hashem loves such a person any less, and neither should we.
Later that week, I met with a young man and his mother*. I was told that the young man, a bright fifteen-year-old, had some questions he didn’t feel comfortable asking anyone else. He began our conversation by explaining to me that he was not a young man, but rather, a young woman. He watched me intently, looking for a flick of a muscle that would betray a sense of belittlement or disbelief. I nodded. “Thank you for letting me know. I appreciate it.”
Then the questions began: “How does the Torah view gender identity? What happens when someone’s identity is fluid, to the point that they identify as a woman today and a male tomorrow? How does that impact their Mitzvah obligation? Where do I sit in shul?” The questions were impersonal, and I tried my best to respect the deliberate distance placed between us by keeping the conversation academic.
We discussed the controversial p’sak of Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg about a particular case of which he ruled that a person is defined by their anatomy, even if their anatomy is a result of surgery1. The implications of Rabbi Waldenberg’s ruling are up to debate, but all would agree that identification with a certain gender does not have a bearing on Halacha. In Kabbalistic literature2, we do find discussions of male souls in the body of a female. Though this would have no Halachic ramifications, it might indicate that a person’s characteristics may be atypical for their gender. To put it differently, it might indicate that one’s gender identity can be different than their anatomy. As I shared this last point, some of the tension in the room seemed to dissipate. I had a feeling this would not be our last conversation.
For reasons that are still not fully understood, the number of people identifying as part of the LGBTQ+ community seem to be growing3. Our frum communities are not immune to national statistics, though our closets may be darker and have better locks. A rabbi once commented that he thought there was no domestic violence in the frum community until one Shabbos when he decided to speak about it from his pulpit. Suddenly, the floodgates opened, and he heard from numerous women (and men) who were abused by their spouses. This topic is far more sensitive and Halachically-fraught, and not so easily discussed from a pulpit.
However, there are serious Halachic and Hashkafic questions that need to be addressed. For them to be addressed properly it is essential that members of the LBTQ+ community and their family members approach rabbanim and major poskim and pose to them their questions. Halacha is dynamic; a p’sak to a theoretical question is not the same as one addressing a real-life situation. This was made clear to me as a young rabbi training with a major poseik. Over the course of a single afternoon, this rav fielded the same question numerous times. Even more impressive than his patience, I was struck how the same question was almost always answered differently. The poseik explained to me how each person’s life circumstances will impact how a question is answered. The rav is not just a repository of Halachic knowledge, there is often a spectrum of what is allowed and what is not. His job is to holistically incorporate Halacha with the unique circumstances of the person asking the question. Not only is the backstory relevant but even the way the question is being asked in there here-and-now impacts the poseik’s response.
When a young man who is grappling with his sexual identity and the pressure to get married is standing before a poseik with tears in his eyes, when a young girl who is adamant that she is not actually a girl has a panic-attack in a rav’s office as she discusses how this impacts her daily, when a parent who has tried so hard to maintain a relationship with his daughter gets invited to her same-sex wedding poses the shaila to a the family’s rabbi, the dynamics of the shaila-p’sak start to shift. To be clear, this is not to say that a poseik’s compassion will compel him to allow what is forbidden, that would be Halachic malpractice. On the contrary, what I am suggesting is that the Halachic system is currently handicapped in that many questions are not being asked, preventing poskim from seeing and therefore addressing a full picture.
Many people in the LGBTQ+ community are hesitant to speak to a rabbi, and for obvious reasons. Responsibility lies with all rabbanim to convey a sense they can be approached to discuss any question and be sympathetic to any challenge. One does not need to discuss LGBTQ+ issues from their pulpit to give off this impression. Members of the LGBTQ+ do not owe it to anyone to sacrifice their dignity to pose such questions. Some, based on previous experiences, may have already decided that they are not interested in any answers or direction that they receive. However, if you are in this community and you can summon the courage to do so, please know that it will have an impact far beyond you and your particular question.
Recently, an Orthodox rabbi who is of a liberal persuasion penned a set of guidelines for same-sex couples in the Orthodox Jewish community4. Some of what he wrote is unacceptable to bearers of our tradition. Our guidelines will be written by our major poskim, who will be informed by real questions and experts in the field. Their rulings may not please everyone, but that is not their job. I am confident that they will undoubtedly balance conviction to the immutability of the Torah with the value of “d’racheha darchei noam, its ways are ways of pleasantness,” and will provide our communities with Torah guidance to these pressing questions.
As we wait, perhaps we can all take a very small first step on our own by acknowledging that members of our most heimishe shuls are struggling with these questions personally, and the way we speak can easily be in violation of onaas devarim (the prohibition against saying things that can embarrass or pain someone else). Perhaps we can treat members of the LGBTQ+ community no different than we treat people who are not Shomer Shabbos. (This analogy, for the record, is a terrible one. Being a member of the LGBTQ+ community does not necessarily mean that one is in violation of any prohibition! However, this analogy does provide a glaring example of our inconsistencies.)
Most importantly, perhaps we can just be a little bit more compassionate. The sense of confusion, fear, and isolation that an LGBTQ+ individual in a Jewish Orthodox space feels is impossible for those of us not in that community to understand. This is true not only for the individual but also for their parents. Being kind is not a concession or endorsement to beliefs that are not ours.
Occasionally, in my conversation with the teenager, the teen’s mother would ask her child to explain what different terms meant; words like novosexual and abrosexual were foreign to her. Thinking back to that conversation, I don’t think I said anything in our short time together that was helpful, but knowing that this teenager had such a mother, someone who was kind, considerate, and respectful, I was hopeful that this story would have a happy ending.
1. Shu”t Tzitz Eliezer, 11:78
2. Maggid Meisharim
*Names and identifying information have been changed
Rabbi Yisrael Motzen, a musmach of Ner Yisroel and graduate of Johns Hopkins University, is the Rav of Ner Tamid, Baltimore, MD.