Changing The Discussion About Gay Rights In The Orthodox Jewish Community

It was the summer of 2008 in Chicago. The month before I went to yeshiva for the first time. I was excited. My friends and I had talked about doing this for a while now.

We were going to the gay pride parade.  I remember how happy I was when we went, how happy I was to finally go to one of these. Over half of my friends in college were gay or bisexual, and I wondered why I had never been to one before.

We spent the whole day there, taking in the sights, enjoying the happiness and feeling of freedom.

I don’t know exactly what I was thinking that day, but I do know that I never expected to change how I felt about gays or gay rights. Sure, I was going to yeshiva, but I didn’t even believe that the Torah came from G-d. I liked the spirituality.

Anyway, this was who I was. And nothing would change that, no matter what happened in Israel.

But then it did.

I don’t really know how it happened, or when it happened. There was never a conscious decision. It was something I struggled with for a while, then tried not to think about because it upset me. And then one day, I woke up, and I realized I looked at the world differently.

This became starkly apparent to me a few days ago. I had asked Chaim Levin, a gay Jew who had grown up Chabad and is now an activist for gay rights, to write about his experiences in a guest post for Pop Chassid. We had connected because I had written a piece called “Calling All Creators” that I had read at an open mic I organized in Crown Heights. There’s a line in the piece about a gay person needing someone to connect with, someone to support him. Chaim was inspired by the line and had reached out to me after the open mic.

So I asked him to write a piece. I wanted it to be non-political, to connect with the audience on a level that was beyond beliefs and creeds. I just wanted him to be human.

A week or two later, he submitted a piece called “Out In Lubavitch”. It was one of the most beautiful, most powerful pieces of writing I had read in a while. I cried when I read it. I immediately agreed to publish it.

But as the piece absorbed into me, and I meditated on it more and more, something in my gut told me I couldn’t publish it, no matter how human it was, no matter how real and powerful.

And it had nothing to do with the piece, I realized. It had to do with Chaim’s beliefs.

I realized that I simply didn’t agree with all of them. I don’t believe a gay Jew should date or marry another man, whether they break halacha or not. I don’t believe in other things he stands for as well.  And still others (e.g. whether being gay is changeable or not) I don’t know what I believe.

Turning down that piece was the hardest decision I’ve ever made for Pop Chassid. I wanted so badly to publish it, so badly to change the discourse over gay rights within the orthodox community.

But I knew that if I published the piece, just by having it on Pop Chassid, it would implicitly affirm that I held beliefs that I no longer had. I couldn’t do it.

Chaim was understandably upset, and felt that I was taking the easy way out. I don’t blame him.

But the truth is, I chose not to publish it not despite my convictions but because of them. I realized the only way I could stand up for my beliefs about gays is to write about it myself.

The problem, I realized, is that this discussion has gotten so discombobulated, so confused, so inside-out, that people simply aren’t listening to each other anymore. There are people on both sides of the fence that want something, that need something, but there is something holding them back from connecting.

I sincerely believe that the vast majority of orthodox Jews are like me. They want to embrace gay Jews on one hand, but also disagree fundamentally with many of the positions of their activists on the other.

The problem is that we’ve, as a community, created a false polarity. People on both ends of the discourse believe that to support gays means to support gay marriage, to believe that gays can’t change their fundamental nature.

I disagree. I think that the orthodox Jewish world is full of people with a lot of love, with a lot of care, for the gay community, but that nonetheless don’t believe in gay marriage. They’re not the type of people that would necessarily vote against it, or go out and protest against it. But they don’t believe in it.

What I believe is happening is that these voices are getting drowned out because they don’t fit into either camp neatly. They’re not protesters. But they also aren’t seen as sympathetic or caring for the gay community. And so they’re stuck in the middle, and no matter which stand they make, they will be accused of being apologists, or brain washed, or stupid, or violating their Jewish beliefs.

And so the camps divide more. And the discourse gets uglier. And some of the people in the middle choose to join one camp or the other, simply because they end up believing those are the only two options.

This discourse, this disagreement, in the end, is unfortunate. Is a waste.

Because there are gay Jews out there that are living in fear. Who can’t come out or discuss the issues they face for fear of being ostracized, being “reprogrammed” against their will, of being bullied, persecuted, attacked. Many attempt suicide. Some succeed.

This can’t go on. This needs to stop.

But the only way it will truly stop, will truly reach a point of peace, is when both sides simply accept that they believe differently. That they have certain things they may never agree on. And then to go from there into the deeper discussion: their connection.

At the end of the day, every orthodox Jew is required to love his fellow Jew baselessly, with absolutely no reservations. He needs to let go of his disagreements, of his arguments, and to accept every Jew as one. And not only that, but to work to prevent the bullying, attacks, and other things that would cause a Jew to feel ostracized.

No matter what, the orthodox community needs to get over its uncomfortablity, its disagreements, and to realize that people’s lives are more important than being quiet about the estrangement many gay Jews face. That ignoring an issue is not the solution to it. Because Jews are suffering. In pain. Some are dying.

I sincerely believe, as well, that the people on the “left”, may want gay marriage to be legal, may want every orthodox Jew to believe that being gay is unchangable. But I think gay Jews want and need something else much more: to simply feel accepted. To not feel judged. For others to not assume that just because they are out that they are breaking halacha. To be given simple, complete, love from their families, and from their Jewish family.

It’s time the spears are put down. It’s time the arguments are put aside until the right moment. Because the arguments can’t be had if there isn’t first a mutual respect and love.