Despite biblical prohibitions against homosexuality, Orthodox Jews should treat gays and lesbians with respect and sensitivity and welcome them as full members of Orthodox synagogues.
That message was delivered by Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot during a Jan. 31 appearance at Rutgers Hillel in New Brunswick; he was invited by the Mesorah Orthodox community student board.
In 2010, the Orthodox rabbi drafted a landmark statement of principles on homosexuality that was widely accepted by Modern Orthodox rabbis, mental health professionals, gay Orthodox Jews, and scholars.
While affirming the biblical ban on homosexual acts, the statement affirms the right of gay men and women to reject “change therapies” they “reasonably see as useless or dangerous.”
Although heterosexual marriage remains the “ideal model,” according to the statement, “embarrassing, harassing, or demeaning someone with a homosexual orientation or same-sex attraction is a violation of Torah prohibitions that embody the deepest values of Judaism.” Instead, explained Helfgot, gays and lesbians should be welcomed into Orthodox circles as part of an effort “to create a community where people are accepted and loved and cherished and where people are trying to connect to God.”
The statement firmly rejects “outing,” affirming the right of individuals to keep their sexual orientation to themselves. Children of gay couples should be welcomed into the day school community, it says, and marriage between gay and heterosexual partners should be discouraged.
The “consensus” document, which involved “hundreds of hours of discussion, debate, and editing,” was signed by rabbis and Jewish leaders from across the country, Helfgot said.
The statement revolves around the premise that “all human beings are created in the image of God and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect,” he said.
Helfgot is rabbi at Netivot Shalom in Teaneck and chair of the departments of Bible and Jewish Thought at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in Riverdale, NY.
All Jews should strive to fulfill as many of the 613 mitzvot “to the best of their ability,” said Helfgot, but humans are not infallible, and virtually none of the great Torah scholars had “an all or nothing” attitude to adherence to the commandments.
The focus of Helfgot’s talk is “an important topic facing the Orthodox community at the moment, and we want the people of the Rutgers community to be informed on such an important issue,” said Mesorah chair Rafael Levy of Englewood.
Helfgot acknowledged differing opinions on homosexuality are often generational.
“What I’m comfortable with may be different from what you are comfortable with,” said Helfgot, who engaged in a lively discussion with students on such subjects as gays serving as synagogue officers or holding a kiddush to welcome the adopted or biological child of a gay couple.
“How should a [gay] couple be listed in the shul bulletin?” asked Helfgot. “There’s not one answer and it’s a question that requires sensitivity.”
While some questions should be left up to individual synagogues and religious leaders, the issue came to a “flashpoint” following a Yeshiva University panel on the topic three years ago that featured three gay alumni and a current YU student. The event produced a schism within the university community, after a number of yeshiva heads criticized the event for “publicizing or seeking legitimization” for homosexuality.
The “very shrill” response “reflected badly on Orthodoxy because it wasn’t where most Orthodox really were,” said Helfgot. It prompted him to draft the document, revised with the help of Rabbis Aryeh Klapper, dean of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership, and Yitzchak Blau, who teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum and the Orayta Yeshiva.
Helfgot said that while the Leviticus prohibition of “man lying with man” is not debatable, modern sensibilities have many traditional Jewish leaders “up against a hard place.”
“I do not see in the foreseeable future that any responsible person in the Orthodox community would say homosexuality is permissible,” he said, adding that Orthodoxy can never give its blessing to religious gay marriage or commitment ceremonies.
The topic resonated with students in attendance, including Bianca Gorelick of Hillsdale, who said she didn’t believe in “ostracizing people in the community.”