July 5, 2003

Orthodox and Gay: Conversations outside of the closet


As he takes a group of New Yorkers on a tour of his old neighborhood in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Israel David Fishman wears a weathered, slightly wistful look on his face. A child of the noisy, frenetic streets of the hasidic enclave, Israel is something of an outcast from Orthodox life-a man driven away in his youth from home and family because he was gay.

Now an outsider and anti-Orthodox, the aging Israel is one of several characters who appear in the controversial and much-celebrated documentary film about gays and Orthodoxy, Trembling Before G-d. At the time of the making of the film, at the end of the 1990s, Israel, then 58, had not spoken to his father in decades. Living 25 minutes away from his father's house in Brooklyn, Israel was in exile, cut off from the rest of his family.

"I want to be loved and respected for who I am," Israel said.

Then the film went into production, and Israel's life unexpectedly changed. His Hasidic sister welcomed him to the first family function in more than a decade. Her son, a nephew whom Israel barely knew, began visiting Israel, sometimes bringing his Orthodox children with him. Finally, after more than two decades in family exile, Israel got a chance to reunite with his father, who was almost 100.

When filmmaker Sandi (Simcha) DuBowski released his movie about two and a half years ago, he did not foresee the impact the movie would have on families long divided by a son's or daughter's or brother's sexuality. The film unexpectedly has triggered renewed dialogue between estranged family members, and in some cases, helped spark reconciliation.

"The film allowed the conversation to begin again between parents and children," DuBowski said. "I've heard so many stories of family reunification. Parents who disowned their children and weren't speaking are talking again. For someone like Israel, who is in his early 60s, I think for the first time he's found redemption in his family and has learned that maybe not every Orthodox Jew is like his father. Israel's been waiting 60 years for this."

Likewise, in the Orthodox community at large, the film-along with changing attitudes toward homosexuality in American culture generally-has helped ignite unprecedented communal conversation about homosexuality. In a religious society where public discussion even of heterosexual intimacies is rare, the film has breached a long-standing taboo.

Where, exactly, the conversation about the issue will go is unclear, and what its long-lasting effects on Orthodoxy will be is hard to say. In a community that by its very nature is averse to exposing itself to anything that challenges its traditional values of family, procreation, and adherence to Torah precepts, homosexuality presents Orthodoxy with an acute dilemma. But Orthodox Jews increasingly are being forced to confront this phenomenon, which, until recently, was swept under the carpet by the few family members, rabbis, and counselors directly compelled to deal with it. In the Orthodox world, it seems, talk of gays has come out of the closet.

"Orthodoxy has become much more realistic about it," said Asher Z. Lopatin, rabbi at an Orthodox synagogue in Chicago that helped organize Trembling's Chicago debut last year. "We've moved a lot further. There is a discussion of how we can make people feel comfortable in our shuls. It raises sensitivity to people who are struggling both with Orthodoxy and with personal issues. Some Reform people are frustrated, saying [to gays], 'We will accept you, we will love you,' but these people still want to be Orthodox. There is a thirst to be shomer mitzvot"-to stay within the confines of Orthodoxy.

To an outsider, it might seem that little formal change is afoot. No Orthodox-sponsored conferences have been convened on the subject, there are no Orthodox synagogues with openly gay rabbis, and the religious prohibition against homosexuality is so widely and unambiguously accepted that there is virtually no halachic debate on the issue.

But in a community known for its imperviousness to change, there have been some subtle signs of a significant shift. A growing number of Orthodox synagogues are screening DuBowski's film and holding post-movie discussion forums. For the first time, Trembling Before G-d is being shown in day schools. In Israel, facilitators are working with educators from mamlachti-dati schools to prep teachers for classroom discussion about homosexuality after the nationwide screening of DuBowski's film on Israel's Channel 2 later this season. The Rabbinical Council of America, a North American Orthodox rabbinical group, held a mini-session on homosexuality at its annual conference last year. The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance had a session on gays at its international conference in New York last fall.

The community is abuzz.

There is a wide range of opinion among Orthodox Jews about homosexuality in the community-a point underscored by the disparate presentations at the two Orthodox conferences last year. At the RCA convention, the gay session's speakers' panel was comprised of a rabbi who insisted that there is no such thing a homosexual, only homosexual acts; a therapist affiliated with a group called Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality, or Jonah, which promotes conversion to heterosexuality; and a Yeshiva University educator who argued that there still is a chance to reverse the "tide of social acceptability" of homosexuality. By contrast, the panel at the JOFA conference consisted of an openly gay Orthodox rabbi, a therapist who serves as the director of Trembling Before G-d's Orthodox mental health project, and the diminutive DuBowski. When an audience member got up and in the course of asking his question referred to the halachic prohibition against male-on-male intercourse, he was nearly booed off the stage. JOFA represents the most liberal element of modern Orthodoxy.

"There's still a long way to go in terms of understanding the issue and understanding the theological issues," Blu Greenberg, JOFA's founder, said. "I think the film has been a factor. This is just the beginning of the turning-around of some of these attitudes. Which is not to say that the Orthodox rabbinate has changed the halachic position on homosexuality."

Orthodox religious leaders willing to talk about the subject seem torn by the impulse to sympathize with the struggles of gay members of their community and promoting therapeutic alternatives that seek to transform homosexuals into heterosexuals-or, at least, into functionally heterosexual men and women. From the pulpit, they condemn homosexuality as they would desecration of the Sabbath, but in private rooms and rabbi's offices they often find themselves counseling individuals caught between their religion and their hormones.

These encounters, like the film, have given the conundrum of homosexuality in the Orthodox world a human face. That, say observers, is the impetus for a new sense of urgency among community members to deal with the issue.

"What's really been happening over the last 10 years is that community members are coming out to rabbis, and rabbis are no longer safe from the implications of this because they're dealing with real human lives of people they care about," said Steven Greenberg, an openly gay Orthodox rabbi (Greenberg, who is not related to Blu Greenberg, was ordained long before he came out as gay). "The Orthodox community is very concerned with public comportment versus personal counsel. That's typical of Orthodox rabbis. I think that Orthodox rabbis feel stuck-wanting to take care of people they care about and wanting to protect the tradition."

The executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, said that Orthodoxy should recognize that there are people with genuine homosexual predispositions, but should not accept the practice of homosexuality. "The Torah sometimes forbids us to do things we have strong urges to do. Homosexuality is not the only one," he said. "Rabbis need to understand the pain of these people; we have to be there to listen to them." By the same token, he said, "If the Torah forbids it, it is certainly possible to control."

Weinreb said he believes homosexuality should be treated as a community mental health issue. "There is a feeling within the profession of mental health that this can be treated. I think rabbis have to know this, even though it's politically incorrect," he said. "The solution lies in understanding the problem and encouraging people to seek whatever treatment is available, and in accepting people who are not observant in one aspect of halacha."

Weinreb's dictum-hate the sin, not the sinner-is echoed by rabbinic authorities across the centrist Orthodox spectrum. At issue is the degree to which the sin merits condemnation, and how one condemns the sin without alienating the sinner.

"We have to ask: What's in our interests?" said Lopatin, rabbi at Chicago's Anshe Sholom B'nai Israel. "Is it our interest to chase them away or to make them feel comfortable? No one thinks Orthodoxy accepts homosexuality-or the homosexual life. That's a given. The other part that has to be established is we don't judge people and we respect people that come to daven with us. If we could show nonjudgmentalism-that is the no. 1 thing."

Barry Freundel, the rabbi at Kesher Israel, an Orthodox synagogue in Washington, D.C., said, "There is a vast difference between the gay rights activist and the yeshiva student who's struggling with his urges." When possible, Freundel advocates conversion to heterosexuality. "We have to be counter-cultural on this," he said. "I know people who have changed."

Jonah, a Jewish organization dedicated to that cause and affiliated with the National Association for the Rehabilitation and Treatment of Homosexuals, has earned the ire of gay activists for its work-something its co-director, Arthur Goldberg, says ultimately is not a bad thing.

"The gay activists have really done a service to the community by bringing the issue out of the closet," Goldberg said. "Once it's brought out of the closet and people understand it and you don't have rampant ignorance about it, then a healing strategy, both for the individual and for the community at large, can actually take place."

Goldberg is an advocate of what he calls "gender-affirming psychotherapy."

There are several options for Orthodox homosexuals. There are those who take flight from Orthodoxy, unable or uninterested in trying to reconcile their hormonal urges with Orthodox tradition. There are those who keep their sexual preference hidden from everyone-even, in some cases, their spouses. Some are openly gay outside of the Orthodox world but closeted around the Orthodox. Some simply ignore the apparent conflict between their homosexual activity and their religious beliefs; others find it is a constant obsession and their greatest personal challenge. Some people are homosexually active, some are trying to practice heterosexuality, and some have resigned themselves to celibacy.

The choice, Steven Greenberg said, often is between "sinking into a depression or leaving Yiddishkeit entirely."

There are no credible estimates of the number of gay Orthodox Jews, but it seems that everybody knows someone who is gay-and that people are being increasingly open about it.

"You can say you're gay, but so long as you don't say it so much," said one community observer, Elizabeth Rotenberg, who is a proponent of gay rights but is not herself gay. "The modern-Orthodox envelope will push and push and push, but at a certain point you have to go outside of the community if you want full recognition of your choice, your partner and your family. It is difficult to get your child into a modern-Orthodox school if your partner is of the same sex. And what happens when that child grows up and his or her parents want to have a bar-mitzvah? What will communities do?"

For most Orthodox homosexuals, juggling sexuality and religious beliefs is not a political or communal issue, but a deeply personal one.

One gay man who asked to be identified as Noach said he struggles every day with his sexuality. A Jew who discovered his homosexuality around puberty and Orthodoxy in college, Noach came to religion just as he was hitting his sexual peak. Noach spent two years in therapy trying to change his sexual orientation, then gave up when his therapist suggested that the effort was futile. Now, almost a decade later and in his early 30s, Noach tries to abstain from sex out of religious conviction.

"My attitude toward homosexuality is it's either some physical acting out, heterosexual marriage, or celibacy," Noach said. "I tried to explore the heterosexual venue through therapy. Now it's either celibacy or a same-sex relationship. So I'm trying for celibacy, which is hard and lonely."

Noach said that while he recognizes that the Torah does not prohibit touching another man, or even sharing a committed, non-sexual relationship with another man, celibacy "puts me halachically in safer territory than if I were partnered with someone and possibly engaging in aveirot"-sinful behavior.

While he's not always successful, Noach says he at least recognizes that acts like male physical intimacy or masturbation are not what God wants of him. "Anal intercourse is clearly prohibited," he said. "Beyond that, I see the issue of wasting seed not as a gay issue, but as a related issue, and one that applies to heterosexual people too."

Steven Greenberg, along with a few Orthodox gays, takes pains to make halachic distinctions between different types of homosexual activity, some of which he says he believes is permissible. "I think I've come up with actually a handful of options," Greenberg said. "The most shocking and true option is that the only prohibition in the Torah itself is anal intercourse. There's nothing prohibited except intercourse between two men. The Torah's not speaking about homosexuality."

One would be hard-pressed to find a single Orthodox rabbi publicly agree with this assertion. Some rabbis are more lenient when it comes to lesbianism-where the prohibition widely is considered to be rabbinic rather than Biblical-but most rabbis group lesbianism and male homosexuality in the same general category. More likely, observers say, rabbis will tell people like Noach to observe whatever mitzvoth they possibly can.

"I would compare it to any other non-Orthodox behavior within the Orthodox community," the OU's Weinreb said. "Of course there's always a danger of children modeling themselves after someone who is not observant of one Orthodox practice or another. Parents and teachers have to be able to show children that we don't approve of the way these people live, but they're nevertheless part of our family. We make those distinctions all the time."

When it comes to introducing the subject in schools and shuls, however, many Orthodox educators don't quite know what to do. Initially, many opposed the idea of talking about it with students, but as the phenomenon has moved increasingly into the public sphere, even within the Orthodox world, educators have begun to take a different approach. DuBowski's film, which when it first opened in the U.S. was the subject of intense protests, in some cases by religious educators, is now being screened in some day schools and Orthodox synagogues.

"A year ago I had protests in front of the movie theatre in Baltimore," DuBowski said of Trembling's Baltimore premier. "Orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians protested together. But a year later I'm back in Baltimore and we're now doing a screening at an Orthodox synagogue where 400 people come. It's gone from protests on the street to the inside of Orthodox shuls."

Trembling on TV

When audience members walk out of Sandi DuBowski's film, Trembling Before G-d, they often find themselves engaged in impassioned conversation, grappling with the choices and challenges of the Orthodox and gay characters in the film.

When the film is broadcast nationally on Israel's Channel 2 sometime later this season-if all goes as planned-the film may jumpstart a new conversation about homosexuality in the Jewish state, particularly among religious Israelis.

To prepare for that, a group of educators, therapists and counselors have quietly and painstakingly been meeting with teachers and principles at scores of schools around the country. They're trying to train school and youth officials to handle the questions and conversations the project's organizers say the film undoubtedly will raise among young Israelis, particularly in Orthodox circles.

"Teachers and counselors are barely ready to watch it themselves, so they're barely ready to show it to their kids," said Tanya Zion, coordinator of Petach Lev, the Israeli Outreach Project associated with DuBowski's film. "They really don't know how to deal with the questions that are raised. We wanted to allow the Orthodox community to prepare for that to happen, for these personal stories to come out. This process has to be done really carefully in order to serve the needs of this community."

The education and community outreach project, while focused on staff at mamlachti-dati schools, also includes teachers and counselors from secular Israeli schools. It is being run with the support of the Ministry of Education and is funded by a variety of foundations in Israel and the United States. Coordinators meet with staff, screen the movie, and discuss the ways educators should respond to youths who may themselves be dealing with homosexuality, whether themselves, through family, or within their peer group.

Being equipped to deal with emotions related to sexual identity is about more than just education, say the project's organizers. It's about saving lives. Up to a third of teen suicides are related to sexual-identity crisis issues, according to an oft-cited 1989 study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. That puts this issue front and center, says Zion.

"Whether it's going to be on TV or not, these kids are in crisis," she said. An impassioned activist, Zion became interested in the cause when a close friend killed herself over a crisis of sexual identity several years ago.

"There's just nowhere for people to turn," DuBowski said. "Liberal Jewish communities have a few resources to deal with homosexuality. Orthodox Jewish communities have zero. A parent discovers that his child is gay. Where can they go to find affirmative help? There need to be more resources for people to turn to."

Often, DuBowski said, families go through a mourning process when they discover that a son or daughter is gay. Like other mourners, they need support. Petach Lev is the filmmaker's attempt to provide a support network (it is accessible online via www.tremblingbeforeg-d.com)

At present, Petach Lev has 11 trained facilitators, and organizers say they expect to reach staff at more than 70% of Israel's mamlachti-dati schools. "We've focused on the religious community, but there's no doubt a lot of work needs to be done in the secular community as well," Zion said. "Secular Israelis need to see the movie to see the power of Orthodoxy-that's a really powerful statement."

As for the Orthodox community, ignoring the problem won't solve anything, said one Orthodox man struggling with his homosexuality. "I don't think people should be told, 'Just don't do it,'" he said. "I think it ignores the reality of the situation."