Last year, for the first time in over a decade, I attended a Yom Kippur service. Not only did I attend, I was convinced to join three others in leading the mincha service. This is traditionally when the Torah reading is from Leviticus and features “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.”
Despite “abomination” also applying to eating shellfish and violating Shabbat, the selective focus on its use here has animated prejudice and discrimination targeting homosexual people for millennia. For affiliated LGBT+ Jews this verse encapsulates a struggle to fully embrace and express their Jewish and queer identities. Queer Jews have experienced alienation, exclusion or hostility based on sentiments emanating from this text. It is why some don’t attend traditional Yom Kippur services, or sadly why others distance themselves from Jewish community life entirely.
For much of the last ten years, despite being a very involved Jew, I shared that pain. Being queer wasn’t the only reason I stayed away on Yom Kippur and avoided synagogue life, but experiences of revulsion, and fear of rejection for who I was, played a major part.
Too many young people still experience fear and pain because of their gender or sexuality. The report by the Children’s Society into children’s wellbeing found “important variations in the likelihood of self-harm … Children who were attracted to children of the same gender or both genders were much more likely to self-harm – in fact, almost half (46%) of these children had done so.” Stonewall’s 2017 School Report highlighted young people in faith schools being more at risk, with few schools presenting homophobic bullying as wrong, and a third of these schools’ teachers not challenging this bullying. The statement that “LGBT pupils of faith are somewhat more likely to have tried to take their own life than those who aren’t of faith (30 per cent compared to 25 per cent)” is pertinent.
For this reason, the ‘Guide for Orthodox Jewish Schools’ on the wellbeing of LGBT+ Pupils released last week is a welcome intervention from Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis. It is also a testament to the determination of KeshetUK in their work “to ensure a world where no one has to choose between their LGBT+ and Jewish identity.”
Parts of the guidance offer a rational way forward for those perturbed by the need to acknowledge the existence of LGBT+ pupils as part of promoting British values: “The school’s written ethos commitment to the welfare of LGBT+ pupils needs to be explicit … Being explicit about sensitivity to the welfare of LGBT+ pupils avoids the risk of young people receiving mixed messages, or finding some parts of school life safe and welcoming, but others hurtful and harmful.”
Another piece of this guidance highlights how even good intentions may have a negative impact: “A teacher might believe that they are addressing students with all due sensitivity, but without recognising LGBT+ issues and the life experiences of a young LGBT+ person growing up in the Jewish community, it is possible – and indeed likely – that they will cause physical and spiritual harm, potentially driving young people away from Judaism.”
When preparing to lead the Yom Kippur mincha service, I was surprised that Reform communities replaced the objectionable text for the mincha service without any explanation. Rabbi Jeffrey Brown’s “Preaching against the text: An Argument in Favor of Restoring Leviticus 18 to Yom Kippur” takes issue with neglecting the trickier parts of our tradition. Silencing the words misses an opportunity for some Jews’ experiences to enhance an understanding of Jewish values that could be valuable for all. One way of interpreting Leviticus 18:22, offered by Rabbi Steven Greenberg, is as a prohibition against sex “as punishment or sport” or “a tool of humiliation and domination”.
On Yom Kippur we confess “for the sin we have committed before You by misusing sex”. If we accept Rabbi Greenberg’s interpretation, we might ALL identify times when we have misused sex, physical intimacy or destructive desire. Maybe as we read this confession, we can each atone for behaviour we are all capable of – or indeed culpable of – regardless of our sexual orientation? And if we can find ways to absorb and adapt the testing parts of our traditional texts, a more inclusive Judaism, that offers instruction for all our relationships, might arrive that little bit faster.
David Davidi-Brown is CEO of the Union of Jewish Students [UJS].