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Warren J. Blumenfeld Headshot

LGBT Discrimination and the Promise of Tikkun Olam

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Though I was certainly not surprised, I was saddened when recently I read a statement on marriage for same-sex couples issued by a wing of Orthodox Judaism and signed by over 100 Orthodox rabbis reaffirming its position laid out in July 2010 on marriage for same-sex couples. That 2010 document, the "Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community," asserted that though "All human beings are created in the image of G-d and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect (kevod habeniyot) ... Halakhic (legal) Judaism views all male and female same-sex sexual interactions as prohibited ... [and] 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."

The reaffirmation, "Orthodox Rabbis Stand on Principle," released November 2011 was in response to an Orthodox rabbi who conducted a marriage ceremony for two men at a Washington, D.C. synagogue. According to the statement: "By definition, a union that is not sanctioned by Torah law is not an Orthodox wedding, and by definition a person who conducts such a ceremony is not an Orthodox rabbi. Jewish tradition unequivocally teaches that marriage can only exist as a union between a man and a woman, to the exclusion of a homosexual relationship. It is a distortion of Torah to confound that sacred principle..."

As a student of history, I understand the long trajectory of Jewish history, and also the history of members of sexual and gender minoritized communities, and of issues of anti-Jewish and anti-LGBT oppression. What begins as religious condemnations throughout history has resulted in social divisions, marginalization, expulsions, enslavement, forced conversions and mass murder.

Throughout history, many dominant groups (sometimes called "majorities") have depicted or represented targeted groups (sometimes called "minoritized groups") in a variety of negative ways in order to maintain control or mastery. Dominant groups have represented minoritized groups through myths and stereotypes in proverbs, social commentary, literature, jokes, epithets, pictorial depictions and other cultural forms.

When looking over this history in my research, I have discovered many clear and stunning connections between historical representations of Jewish people and representations of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people (LGBTs).

Firstly, throughout the ages, people have cited certain biblical passages to justify persecution and denial of legal protections of LGBTs and Jews, even though great disagreement exists among religious scholars over the original and actual meanings of these passages.

Dominant groups have represented Jews and LGBTs as immature developmental stages: Judaism as an intermediate or immature religious stage on the way to Christianity, the argued advanced, mature faith, and the Hebrew Bible as only a prelude to the eventual coming as Jesus and the Christian Testaments; homosexuality and homosexuals as congenital throwbacks to an earlier stage of human evolution, a kind of remnant of the primitive organisms from which humans developed, and as a psychological developmental disorder, a fixation at an earlier stage of psychosexual development.

By the late 19th century of the Common Era, segments of the scientific and medical communities constructed Jews and homosexuals as distinct "racial types," with immutable biological characteristics, a trend that increased markedly into the 20th century.

A crucial point in the psychology of scapegoating is the representation of minoritized groups as subhuman forms that "recruit," molest and kill children of the majority, and accordingly, both Jews (for example, during the so-called "blood libels") and LGBTs have long been accused of being dangerous predators of children.

While the dominant society has frequently been concerned that Jews and people attracted to others of their sex can "pass" without detection into the mainstream, they have also historically portrayed these groups as destroyers or controllers of society.

Jews and LGBT people can and should assist one another, not simply because of the significant number of LGBT Jews, but also as allies in working to defeat all the deadly forms of oppression, including antisemitism, heterosexism and transgender oppression (cissexism).

Though it cannot be denied that current (and past) statements by Orthodox rabbis on marriage and same-sex couples serve their interests in a number of ways, I believe they are misguided and this policy will backfire.

In truth, heterosexism (the assumption that everyone is or should be heterosexual, and prejudice and discrimination against LGBT people) and cissexism (oppression against people who exist outside the gender/sex binary) are pervasive throughout our society, and each of us, irrespective of sexual or gender identity and expression, is at risk of its harmful effects.

First, heterosexist and cissexist conditioning compromises the integrity of people by pressuring them to treat others badly, which are actions contrary to their basic humanity. These forms of oppression inhibit one's ability to form close, intimate relationships with members of one's own sex or those who exist outside the gender/sex binary, generally restrict communication with a significant portion of the population, and more specifically, limit family relationships.

Heterosexism and cissexism lock all people into rigid gender-based roles, which inhibit creativity and self-expression. They often are used to stigmatize, silence and, on occasion, target people who are perceived or defined by others as gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender, but who are, in actuality, heterosexual or cisgender.

In addition, heterosexism and cissexism are causes of premature sexual involvement, which increase the chances of teen pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Our society pressures young and older people alike, of all sexual and gender identities, to become heterosexually active or cisgenderally expressive to prove to themselves and others that they are "normal."

Societal heterosexism and cissexism prevent some LGBT people from developing authentic self-identities, and add to the pressure to marry someone of the other sex, which in turn places undue stress and oftentimes trauma on themselves as well as their heterosexual spouses and their children.

Heterosexism and cissexism, combined with sexphobia (fear and revulsion of sex) result in the elimination of discussion of the lives, sexuality and gender identities of LGBT people as part of school-based sex education, thereby keeping vital information from all students. Such a lack of information can kill people in the age of AIDS. And heterosexism and cissexism (along with racism, sexism, classism, sexphobia) inhibit a unified and effective governmental and societal response to the AIDS pandemic.

With all of the truly important issues facing the world, heterosexism and cissexism divert energy and attention from more constructive endeavors. They also prevent heterosexuals and cisgender people from accepting the benefits and gifts offered by LGBT people, including theoretical insights, social and spiritual visions and options, contributions in the arts and culture, to religion, to education, to family life, indeed, to all facets of society. Ultimately, they inhibit appreciation of other types of diversity, making it unsafe for everyone because each person has unique traits not considered mainstream, dominant, or considered outside of current binary frames. Therefore, we are all diminished when any one of us is demeaned.

The meaning is quite clear. When any group of people is scapegoated and oppressed, it is ultimately everyone's concern. For today, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are targeted. Tomorrow, they may come for you. Everyone, therefore, has a self interest in actively working to dismantle all the many forms of prejudice and discrimination.

I believe that THE prime factor keeping oppression toward LGBT people locked firmly in place and enacted throughout our society -- on the personal/interpersonal, institutional and societal levels -- is the negative judgments emanating from some faith communities. Within the sphere of religious orthodoxy (in particular within Judaism, Christianity and Islam), the various faith traditions connect negatively on issues of same-sex sexuality and of people who exist outside the gender/sex binary.

Fortunately, however, no monolithic conceptualization exists, for other faith communities (including those within Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism) progressively welcome LGBT people, our sexuality, our gender identities and expressions and our relationships, and these communities work tirelessly to abolish the yoke of oppression directed against us.

Therefore, I raise a central tenet of Jewish tradition known as Tikkun Olam -- meaning the transformation, healing and repairing of the world so that it becomes a more just, peaceful, nurturing and perfect place.

I have a hope. I hope we can all join together as allies to counter the misunderstanding, marginalization and oppression so we can make real the true potential of "Never Again." I ask us all to join and go out into our lives and work for Tikkun Olam. Let us then transform the world.