This article was written by Livvy K., an Essex County, NJ Middle School Student.
The following article is a part of a new series, “Listening to Youth Voices in the New Year.” Each Sunday, articles written by Essex County Middle School students will be published, each week relating to a new topic. You can learn more about this series here.
For much of my life, I was identified as agnostic. I didn’t believe in God or Judaism because I didn’t know if they believed in my sexuality. I would look at the news and see the lines that state homosexuality is an abomination. Then hear those same lines be chanted in my synagogue the following day. It wasn’t until 2 years ago, when I took a Jewish Studies class, where a female soon-to-be Rabbi told me that homosexuality is not and will never be a sin. She explained everything that you could possibly ask about the morality of homosexuality in Judaism. Two years later, I identify as a Jew. It makes me wonder if all young Jews had the opportunity to ask the questions I asked and get the same supporting answer, or is just merely luck that I had a supportive teacher.
The Jewish community has always been vague with views on being queer. The Orthodox and Hasidic community use their power in Judaism to not address important Jewish lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (LGBTQ+) issues and make sure there is little to no positive education about homosexuality. It makes coming out in a Jewish community a hard experiences that often doesn’t happen.
To begin, social classes and hierarchies play a major role in the Jewish religion. Orthodox and Hasidic Jews (the most traditional Jews) are on top of the social pyramid within the Jewish community thus having majority of the power. They control the Israeli government, and according to Forward News, they have cut public school funding for more funding towards private yeshiva (Jewish focused) schools in the U.S. The Orthodox part of Judaism has become the face of Judaism with their noticeable clothes and faces. The scary part is they know their power, and they are well aware of the influence they can have on all Jews. Countless times, the Hasidic and Orthodox Jews have used their popularity and numbers to enforce biased procedures. One example of this is the Orthodox’s association with Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality (JONAH), the largest Jewish conversion therapy organization. Most of JONAH’s methods were unethically, one participant said he had to recreate “traumatic sexual abuse from his childhood” according to Forward News. One participant testified that they asked him to “beat a pillow effigy of his mother with a tennis racket until his hands bled, screaming ‘Mom!’ with each blow.” Once JONAH was abolished in a lawsuit, there was no response from the Jewish community. An apology wasn’t necessary, because it wasn’t the Jewish community as a whole responsibility for JONAH just a few. However, the lack of education of JONAH in synagogue is alarming. The fact that no matter what form of Judaism you practice you wouldn’t know how your religion felt about conversion therapy it was associated with is not right. From cutting public school funding, to being unclear about their thoughts on conversion therapy. The Orthodox and Hasidic have so much influence and don’t use it for the greater good, especially for LGBTQ+ Jews.
Additionally, LGBTQ+ Jews have been oppressed because of the interpretation of lines in important religious texts referring to homosexuality. Specifically, a line in Leviticus 20:13 states: “If a man lies with a male as one lies with a woman, the two of them have done an abhorrent thing; they shall be put to death—their bloodguilt is upon them.” This line is well known and many religious leaders use this line for an argument against homosexulity. Though there are many interpretations of this text, many times these interpretations are ignored or homosexuality is not talked about at all. Also, the history of Judaism has been very heteronormative. One of the most compelling pieces of evidence for this is in some of the most important Jewish literature such as the Mishnah. In the Mishnah, there is an argument between Rabbi Judah and the Sages, “R. Judah said: A bachelor should not herd animals, nor should two bachelors share a single blanket. The Sages permit it.” The Halakhah (Jewish law) follows the Sages because the Talmud says, “Israel is not suspected of homosexuality.” The utter homophobia in these lines are quite clear. The Rabbi and Sages are comparing homosexuality to herding animals, implying that animals and homosexuals are not that different and that a man shall not be with a man. Another key line in the Talmud, is how Israel should “not be suspected of homosexuality.” The line hints that Israelis should be ashamed or embarrassed if suspected that they live in a “gay” country. Though the Mishnah and Talmud was written hundreds of years ago, it’s important to know how they are is still taught in Hebrew Schools. The Talmud, Torah, and Mishnah are all taught in Jewish School, and these homophobic lines from them are taught without mentioning that times are changing or any other interpretations. The effect of homophobia taught in Hebrew Schools and/or the lack of LGBTQ+ education makes kids wonder if they are normal or make kids act in homophobic patterns. Both can have severe consequences.
One of the most compelling pieces of evidence about the oppression of LGBTQ+ is the stigma when coming out. In the past, it was rare that a rabbi would come out. Only in recent times have rabbis been accepted for coming out. However, coming out is still frowned upon in the Orthodox and Hasidic movement. One of the most heartbreaking instances of this comes from a blog post by Abby Stein titled That Night I Cried With the Trans Rabbi From Brooklyn. Stein is a transgender woman who grew up in an Hasidic community. After years of feeling out of place and being told transgender people don’t exist, she left the community, started transitioning, and became an activist for transgender rights. In her blog post, she talks about the events after her coming out post. She writes about an Orthodox Rabbi contacting her in tears. They met and “...we both unraveled our life experiences living with Gender Dysphoria, in a community that ignored our existence.” There is so much sadness in this post, reading about someone who can’t be their true self and someone who had to leave a religion just to transition. To emphasize, many queer Jews will end up marrying the sex or gender they are not necessarily attracted to and have children. According to The Atlantic, Rabbi Gil Steinlauf was a Rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C. Rabbi Steinlauf came out recently as gay. What is surprising is that Steinlauf is 60 years old and has a wife and three kids. This scenario is not uncommon. These personal stories showcase the effect the Hasidic and Orthodox community have on the wellbeing of LGBTQ+ Jews, young and old.
In short, the Hasidic and Orthodox movement have not been supportive to LGBTQ+ Jews. They have been vague on their views on homosexuality, taught homophobic texts in Hebrew Schools, and make coming out difficult rather than allowing it to be liberating. The Jewish community as a whole needs to do a better job speaking up for the Jews who can’t. As Stein stated, “All I can say to the world as a whole, but especially to the Jewish/Orthodox world, is, WE ARE HERE, AND WE CAN USE SUPPORT.”
Don’t be a bystander to your own people who are being discriminated against. That’s the real sin, not homosexuality.
The original writing assignment asked students to create their own essay prompt as long as it connected to our unit theme, “Uses and Abuses of Power,” and was about a topic they were passionate about. As a result, students submitted essays on racial justice, LGBTQ+ rights, education reform, gender equality, and more. We are excited to share their work in this series. You can learn more about this series here.