Queer Jewish leaders are less willing to choose between their faith and their identity. Their communities are starting to listen.
By Molly Sprayrege
October 24, 2019
Last month, over 100 students from the premier Orthodox Jewish institution Yeshiva University marched to demand more LGBTQ+ inclusivity at the school. The demonstrators pushed for increased resources for queer students, the right to form a Gay-Straight Alliance, and inclusivity training for university employees. “We, too, are YU,” they chanted as they marched.
A few months earlier, 27-year-old Daniel Atwood became the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi to be ordained in Jerusalem. After his own rabbinical school refused to ordain him, Atwood spoke publicly about the rejection and caught the attention of Rabbi Daniel Landes, who founded the “post-denominational” and more progressive ordination program Yashrut. Landes invited Atwood to Israel and ordained him alongside seven other students.
Orthodox Jewish law is often interpreted as being intolerant of homosexuality. Two verses in Leviticus condemn men who lie with other men “as he would with a woman,” which some read as a rejection of all forms of homosexuality. Others, however, see the text as far less black and white, believing for example that it only refers to specific sex acts, or that to read condemnation is a gross misinterpretation. Regardless, queer Orthodox Jews not only exist but are coming out younger and more often — and demanding louder than ever the right to live dignified lives.
According to Rabbi Atwood, the Orthodox community has come a long way on acknowledging the existence of the queer community. Now, he says, queer Orthodox jews want more, and the community is starting to listen.
“I think this is a situation where the average people are ten steps ahead of the leaders,” Rabbi Atwood says. “The synagogue I was raised in did not recognize my marriage, did not wish me congratulations on an official level. But when I was there for the holidays, so many of my parents’ friends congratulated me and were excited.”
According to Miryam Kabakov, executive director of ten-year-old Orthodox LGBTQ+ organization Eshel, the Orthodox community has become exceedingly more open over the past decade.
“When we started,” she says, “Orthodox communities were not really addressing LGBTQ inclusion as something they needed to do.” Now, Eshel’s Welcoming Shuls project reports that over 140 Orthodox synagogues across North America are willing to engage in dialogue with the organization about how to be more inclusive and to work toward adhering to their Principles of Inclusion.
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