Stances of Faiths on LGBTQ Issues: Orthodox Judaism

Background

Orthodox Judaism, a branch of Judaism rich in its traditions, has a variety of forms, from Haredi (ultra-Orthodox), to Hasidic (mystical Orthodox) to Modern Orthodox. As well, Orthodoxy preserves great cultural distinctions from all over the world which color its views of gender and sexuality. Despite its diversity, Orthodoxy collectively views itself as the authentic expression of Jewish faith and observance in a direct line from the revelation of the Torah on Mount Sinai through the many interpretive layers of the Talmud and later Medieval authorities. All the major Jewish denominations, (Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Orthodox) are responses to the challenges of modernity. While Orthodox Judaism is decidedly the most  traditional of the denominations, its religious varieties are also shaped by different formulations of acceptance and resistance to the modern condition.

There is no central governing body but despite the different forms it has taken they all share some common principles of faith and a deep loyalty to Halacha or Jewish law. Halacha is a code of behavior that covers a vast range of ethical rules, social mores, ritual practices and spiritual disciplines.  A quarter of the medieval code, the Shulchan Aruch, which to this day guides Orthodox Jews, focuses on sexual practice and marriage. Judaism celebrates creation as an inherent good. Consequently, Jewish law does not disparage sex. However, Orthodox tradition only supports heterosexual relations and only within the context of heterosexual marriage.

Orthodox tradition is religiously organized and socially structured by biblical and rabbinic teachings on fixed gender roles, creating separate religious duties and always separate spaces for men and women during worship. Orthodox Judaism believes that the Torah is of divine origin and represents the word of G-d. Jewish sacred texts, commonly understood in the Christian world as the Old Testament, include the Five Books of Moses, (referred to as the Torah), the Prophets (Nevi'im) and the Writings (Ketuvim). The whole of the Jewish Bible is sometimes referred to as the Written Torah or Tanakh, (a Hebrew acronym for Torah, Prophets and Writings). The Oral Torah is a rich collection of interpretations, legal discussions and literary expansions found in the Talmud and Midrash.

The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, known as the Orthodox Union, and the Rabbinical Council of America, are organizations that represent Modern Orthodox Judaism, a large segment of Orthodoxy in the United States.

LGBTQ Equality

On Inclusion

Orthodox policies related to LGBTQ inclusion are grounded in the Torah and subsequent rabbinic teachings, which prohibit sexual relationships between individuals of same gender, and base gender roles on birth biology. Sex between men and particularly anal intercourse is deemed a violation of biblical weight. Lesbian relations are not mentioned in the Bible and are prohibited explicitly only by later rabbinic authorities.

Orthodoxy in the United States encompasses a wide range of attitudes toward LGBTQ people and the issues they face. The recognition that sexual orientation and gender identity are generally not chosen has softened attitudes. In the most traditional sectors of Orthodoxy empathy has grown only in a very limited way, but in the center and left of the movement there is a slow but steady shift toward more understanding and inclusive attitudes and policies. 

While the public stance of a synagogue or rabbi may adhere strictly to religious law, individual congregants and the rabbi himself may often be personally welcoming of LGBTQ members. In 2010, more than 150 Orthodox rabbis and educators signed a declaration calling for the welcoming of LGBTQ Jews in the Orthodox community. 

"Every Jew is obligated to fulfill the entire range of mitzvot between person and person in relation to persons who are homosexual or have feelings of same sex attraction. 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.”

Organizations such as Eshel are dedicated to the work of supporting those efforts, and of serving Orthodox LGBTQ individuals in their desire to live fully in their religious and cultural traditions. For guidance on finding welcoming synagogues and rabbis, contacting Eshel is a good first step. The organization maintains contacts with congregations across the country and offers its own community of Orthodox LGBTQ Jews, both online and at regular gatherings.

As with other issues of LGBTQ inclusion, there are growing signs of welcome in a few spaces. However, most transgender people will find Orthodox communities extremely difficult to navigate. According to Jewish law, gender reassignment surgery is forbidden on the foundation of a law against male castration. The law from the sacrificial rules of Leviticus, “You shall not offer to the Lord anything [with its testes] bruised or crushed or torn or cut” was extended to human castration, since the end of the verse broadens the context, “and you shall have no such practices in your own land.” Leviticus also outlines prohibitions on altering the physical body with which one was born, "You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord." Both of these texts have been used to reject transgender congregants.

Transgender people are further constrained by Orthodox Judaism’s emphasis on binary gender and strict separation between men and women. For example, a transgender person who has not medically transitioned poses a challenge for a rabbi who must decide whether that person will sit with men or women during worship. In some Orthodox settings, however, transgender people who have transitioned are accommodated. Joy Ladin, for instance, is employed as an out transgender woman at Yeshiva University, the oldest and most comprehensive educational institution under Jewish auspices in America. Individuals whose gender expression does not fit a rigid definition of male or female or who have not physically transitioned will find most Orthodox spaces unaccommodating.

On Marriage Equality

In response to the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of marriage equality, the Union of Orthodox Congregations released a statement, saying, “We reiterate the historical position of the Jewish faith, enunciated unequivocally in our Bible, Talmud and Codes, which forbids homosexual relationships and condemns the institutionalization of such relationships as marriages.” However, marriage equality is a matter of civil law. The separation of church and state ending the importing of religious tests into civil law has been key to the freedom of religion for all Jews. For this reason while there is much resistance to marriage equality in the Orthodox Jewish world, there is little effort to fight the present civil trends. No Orthodox body approves of any religious ceremony for same-sex weddings. Openly gay Orthodox rabbi, Rabbi Steven Greenberg, has officiated at same-sex commitment ceremonies and has been  sharply criticized by his colleagues for doing so.

On Ordination

Acceptance at Orthodox seminaries and ordination as an Orthodox rabbi is denied to individuals who are openly LGBTQ, as they are to women. There are, to date, only a few openly gay Orthodox rabbis all of whom revealed their sexual orientation only after ordination. While Orthodox Judaism presently ordains only men as rabbis, the liberal edge of Modern Orthodoxy has created a position for women, albeit with a distinct title, Maharat.

On Employment

In general the Orthodox Jewish community supports protections against the discrimination of LGBTQ people in the workplace, as long as religious policies are not in jeopardy. In June 2014, Nathan Diament, Executive Director for Public Policy at the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, released a formal statement, saying, “The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (“ENDA”)—which, if passed, would bar sexual orientation discrimination in America’s private sector—contains an appropriate exemption for religious institutions.” Again, policy is set by individual communities. (For example, after minor controversy, Yeshiva University welcomed Joy Ladin, a transgender woman, to return to full participation as a professor following her transition.)

Next Steps

Like other denominations founded in a traditional reading of sacred texts, the Orthodox Jewish community is weighing the power of those readings against the immediate needs of their members and against rapidly changing views in the culture at large. There is an increasing move toward new applications of halacha interpretations that balance the Torah’s strictures against specific behaviors with its broader emphasis on compassion, as embodied in Leviticus 19:18: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”

For LGBTQ Orthodox Jews and their straight allies, we recommend HRC’s upcoming guide for LGBTQ people who wish to live fully in a Judaic tradition. Email religion@hrc.org to reserve a copy. And please check the list of resources provided below. Some are specific to Orthodox Judaism, others are more general.

Resources for LGBTQ Orthodox Jews

  • Bat Kol, an Israeli support group for Orthodox Lesbians. Website in Hebrew

  • Eshel, a national organization working to create community and acceptance for LGBTQ Jews and their families in Orthodox communities.

  • Havruta, an Israel organization serving Orthodox and traditional LGBTQ Jews in Israel.

  • JQY, a national organization supporting LGBTQ Jews and their families in the Orthodox community.

  • Keshet, a national organization working for the full equality and inclusion of LGBTQ Jews in Jewish life.

  • Temicha, a moderated support group for Orthodox parents of LGBTQ individuals.

Contact Information

Orthodox Union
11 Broadway
New York, NY 10004
Website: www.ou.org

Rabbinical Council of America
305 Seventh Avenue, 12th Floor
New York, NY 10001
Website: www.rabbis.org

Last revised: 11/12/2014
Special thanks to Rabbi Steve Greenberg for contributing