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JONAH and the Netherlands

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Homosexuality has always been a hot potato in the Jewish community. Proponents argue that Judaism is homophobic while detractors insist they are just upholding the letter of the law.

The biblical injunction against homosexual activity is clear. People who want to conform to the Bible should not be condemned as homophobic anymore than critics of religion might be labelled theophobic. However, just because I maintain that homosexuality is wrong doesn't mean I have to go beating the drum about it anymore than I might regularly preach against adultery. To be sure, there are times when public statements are deemed necessary, such as when same-sex marriages began to become legalised. Imagine the public outcry were bigamy to be declared legal. Similarly, when governments were voting with their feet to recognise same-sex marriages, it was only to be expected that moralists and religious leaders would speak out against. Still, even when it is considered necessary to protest, it remains imperative that basic sensitivity is maintained. A fundamental principle in Judaism, sadly lost on too many extremists today, is to condemn the action, never the person. Take for example the "Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community," initially released in mid-2010. It was signed by dozens of leading Orthodox Rabbis across the Jewish world, making perfectly clear the traditional Jewish viewpoint on homosexuality, while also reassuring gay people that they are always welcome into Synagogues and communities.

Last week, the Jews Free School in London made headlines for teaching a class that homosexuality can be cured. According to a Jewish Chronicle report, as part of the school's Jewish studies curriculum, pupils were shown a website from the American group JONAH -- Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality, apparently introduced at the end of the textual study on homosexuality and the Orthodox viewpoint. Having met last night with Michael Glass, the Chair of Governors of JFS, he informs me that the school has issued a statement denying the reported sequence of events, and insisting it was something that formed part of a discussion, rather than an ideal that was being formally promoted.

Meanwhile, Holland's Chief Rabbi, Aryeh Ralbag has been suspended for putting his signature to the JONAH mission statement that promotes the idea that homosexuality can be "mitigated and potentially eliminated." This in turn has prompted a public outcry from the Conference of European Rabbis and others, arguing that to relieve a Chief Rabbi from his position for upholding an ancient biblical law, is deplorable, "verging on fascism."

There is a difference between issuing a statement asserting the traditional Jewish view on homosexuality, and offering one's own theory about "illness and cure." The Bible condemns the act as an abomination, as it does eating bacon. Plain and simply put, it is forbidden. That's where the scope of any Rabbi's position should begin and end. If psychotherapists believe that sexual orientation can be altered, that is their remit. It's not for Rabbis to go publically endorsing such a position, which is essentially saying, not only are you gay but you're also mentally unstable. That's crossing the line into condemning the person, not just the act.

Chief Rabbi Ralbag should not be relieved of his position for taking a religious stance on a traditional biblical position. That's plain ludicrous. However, his sensitivity, and by extension his ability to reach out to his wider constituency, in endorsing a controversial statement regarding homosexuals, must surely be called into question.