Stances of Faiths on LGBT Issues: Judaism

The four major movements within Judaism all acknowledge lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews to some degree but take starkly different positions regarding the spiritual rites and civil rights of LGBT people.       

Orthodox Judaism

The Orthodox Jewish community, with about one million members in the United States, is the most traditional branch of Judaism and welcomes all Jews as members.  However, across the broad spectrum of the Orthodox community, there are a variety of views on homosexuality ranging from “abomination” to persons deserving of treatment with “dignity and respect.”  Synagogues do not excommunicate members for sexual attraction toward someone of the same sex though some will still recommend spiritual counseling for such inclinations. In regards to transgender issues, the Orthodox community, its organizations and institutions remain largely silent.

In July of 2010, a “Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community” was released with the endorsements of 104 Orthodox rabbis, Jewish educators and communal leaders in order to better communicate a place of welcome for “our brothers and sisters in our community who have a homosexual orientation.”  This statement was a show of significant progress for LGBT Jews though to date it has not been endorsed by any major orthodox movement or rabbinic organization, such as the Orthodox Union, due to divergences from common Orthodox positions.

The following are excerpts from the Statement of Principles that many believe to deviate from the more conservative commonly held Orthodox positions on lesbian and gay Jews:

  • “…it is critical to emphasize that halakha only prohibits homosexual acts; it does not prohibit orientation or feelings of same-sex attraction, and nothing in the Torah devalues the human beings who struggle with them.”
  • “Jews with a homosexual orientation or same sex attraction, even if they engage in same sex interactions, should be encouraged to fulfill mitzvoth [the 613 Jewish commandments] to the best of their ability. All Jews are challenged to fulfill mitzvot to the best of their ability, and the attitude of “all or nothing” was not the traditional approach adopted by the majority of halakhic thinkers...”
  • “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.”
  • “We affirm the religious right of those with a homosexual orientation to reject therapeutic approaches they reasonably see as useless or dangerous.”
  • “Jews who have an exclusively homosexual orientation should, under most circumstances, not be encouraged to marry someone of the other gender, as this can lead to great tragedy, unrequited love, shame, dishonesty and ruined lives.”

The Orthodox movement, as a whole, defines marriage as a sacred institution between a man and a woman. On the other hand, it does not endorse the Federal Marriage Amendment, which would write discrimination against same-sex couples into the U.S. Constitution, although some individual Orthodox rabbis have come out in support of it as well as similar state constitutional amendments.  Though Orthodox Judaism will only sanction heterosexual marriages, the 2010 Statement or Principles does attempt to welcome LGBT families stating:

“…Communities should display sensitivity, acceptance and full embrace of the adopted or biological children of homosexually active Jews in the synagogue and school setting, and we encourage parents and family of homosexually partnered Jews to make every effort to maintain harmonious family relations and connections.”

The movement will not ordain an openly gay person but rabbi, Steve Greenberg, who came out as gay in 1999 believes he is proof that one can be both Orthodox and gay:  “I would find it as difficult to abandon the pieces of myself that are committed to the tradition as I would to abandon the pieces of myself that are, and always have been, attracted to men,” he told The Boston Globe. “I would be as self-contorting to call myself a Conservative or Reform Jew as I would to call myself a straight person.”

Conservative Judaism

With1.4 million members, the Conservative Movement, of all the branches of Judaism, has the most mixed response to LGBT issues. In December 2006, momentous changes occurred within the movement, the results of which allow Conservative-affiliated rabbinical schools to ordain openly LGB rabbis and further allow clergy to officiate at same-sex commitment ceremonies, at their choosing. Earlier, in 2003, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards approved a response on the Status of Transsexuals. The rabbinic ruling concluded that individuals who have undergone full sexual reassignment surgery, and whose sexual reassignment has been recognized by civil authorities, are considered to have changed their sex status according to Jewish law. Furthermore, sexual reassignment surgery is viewed as an acceptable treatment under Jewish law for individuals diagnosed with gender dysphoria. 

Since 1992 the movement’s leadership has strongly encouraged the welcoming of gay and lesbian people as members of Conservative synagogues. Conservative Judaism considers halacha, or Jewish law, to be binding, but believes that the details and interpretations of the law can evolve as Jewish life evolves through traditional modes of rabbinic study and modern critical scholarship. 

With the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards adoption of the 2006 teshuva (rabbinic opinon), “Homosexuality, Human Dignity and Halakhah,” Conservative clergy may decide as individuals whether or not to officiate as same-sex commitment ceremonies. Notably, the movement does not consider same-sex unions sanctified as equivalent to Jewish, heterosexual marriage. Previously, according to a 1992 teshuva, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards ruled that Conservative rabbis could not officiate at same-sex union ceremonies though there were those who did so anyway.  Beth El Congregation of Baltimore voted in 1993 to allow its rabbi to perform same-sex unions under Jewish ritual marking the first official instance of a board of directors at a Conservative synagogue allowing their rabbi to perform such unions. 

Reform Judaism

The Reform movement, the largest Jewish movement in the United States with 1.7 million members, welcomes LGBT people as full members and clergy. The Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) passed a resolution in 1977 that changed the movement’s official interpretation of Jewish law, making gay sex no longer a violation. The same year, the CCAR called for an end to discrimination of gays and lesbians.

In 1990, the CCAR made it illegal for the movement’s rabbinical schools to discriminate based on sexual orientation in admissions decisions. A resolution proposed by the Ad Hoc Committee on Homosexuality and the Rabbinate and adopted that year by the Central Conference of American Rabbis stated: “All Jews are religiously equal regardless of their sexual orientation.”

Though there are no official resolutions sanctioning the ordination of transgender clergy, the movement does extend a non-discrimination policy to the trans community.   Hebrew Union College, the Reform movement’s seminary, admitted its first transgender student, Reuben Zellman, to its rabbinical program in 2003. Zellman informed the college of his gender identity before applying and was informed that he would be considered for admission based solely on his academic record, like every other applicant.

Reform rabbis are allowed to officiate at same-sex unions “through appropriate Jewish ritual,” according to a resolution passed in 2000, entitled the Resolution on Same Gender Officiation. The resolution does not suggest that these ceremonies are “marriages”; each individual rabbi is given the power to decide, within the context of faith, what each ceremony represents. The practice, however, remains controversial on both sides: some believe it does not go far enough in recognizing LGBT marriage equality and some feel it goes to far in distorting traditional Jewish union or marriage rites.

In 2003, representatives of the Union for Reform Judaism co-signed a statement opposing the anti-gay Federal Marriage Amendment along with officials from other religious groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association. Following this statement, in 2006, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Eric Yoffie, stated, “Gay Americans pose no threat to their friends, neighbors, or co-workers, and when two people make a lifelong commitment to each other, we believe it is wrong to deny them the legal guarantees that protect them and their children and benefit the broader society.” 

The Reform movement continues to be an outspoken voice for LGBT social. The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, based in Washington, DC, is a leading coalition voice on issues of LGBT civil rights, often providing religious testimony to Capitol Hill in support of non-discrimination legislation, and Reform Jewish Voice of New York played an important role in representing the pro-equality faith community during the 2011 New York marriage equality campaign.

Reconstructionist Judaism

Reconstructionist Judaism, the smallest of the four major movements with 130,000 members, fully supports gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, welcoming them as full members and as clergy.

In 1985, the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation adopted a resolution welcoming congregations serving primarily LGBT Jews into the movement. The movement then began allowing its rabbis to perform marriage rituals for same-sex couples in 1993, and since then has also prohibited discrimination in employment based on sexual orientation. 

Though their practices have reflected support for marriage equality since the early 1990s, officially the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association (RRA) did not pass a resolution on civil marriage for same-sex couples until 2004. The far-reaching and overwhelmingly positive resolution not only supported civil marriage but further called upon its members to: “(1)Encourage the congregations, agencies, organizations and institutions in which they serve to extend benefits to same-sex partners of staff members and employees, (2) Monitor local and regional developments and consider ways of advocating for same-sex civil marriage in their communities, and (3) Offer tzedakah (charity) donations to organizations advocating for civil rights for same-sex couples.”  

In terms of sex and sexuality, Rabbi Joshua Lesser explains, “[Reconstructionist Jews] recognize homosexuality as a fundamental aspect of identity that deserves to be treated with the Jewish values of b’ tzelem elohim (respect for human beings as made in God’s image).” Accordingly, Reconstructionist Jews are more concerned with an individual’s well being rather than the specific LGBT acts they may or may not engage in.