(warning: this might be a tough read, please do not read if you’re in a bad place. Also this is long.)
Tomorrow is the Jerusalem March for Pride and Tolerance. I keep thinking about Shira Banki. Maybe because (as I’ve said before), I’m a bit of anniversary nerd and any time an anniversary is commemorated (whether it’s the actual date or not), I think about the years before. And I’m still sad for Shira. And her family. And for all of the LGBT Jews in Jerusalem who are wondering tonight whether they will be safe to march tomorrow.
When Shira was murdered, I didn’t hold back, as I often do. I laid a large part of the blame on the Orthodox world. Not on the fundamentalists who protest all things modern. But on people in our own world who use homophobic speech in the name of halacha or stay quiet in the face of that same homophobic speech. These people play a part in what ultimately becomes the fundamentalism that killed Shira.
The Orthodox world has come a long way. I marvel at that every day. But unfortunately, it is still completely ok for people to objectify LGBT people in order to participate in a sick sort of halachic gymnastics routine that completely vilifies their lives. I’m referring specifically to a post on Facebook I have been monitoring over the past couple of days. This post showed up in a group that is billed as a “A place for serious discussion of the Jewish religion.” And it usually is. This group is heavily moderated and the moderators appear to be caring and careful and tolerant and usually don’t allow discussions to spiral out of control into the point where they may cause pain for readers. But for some reason, the topic at hand- “Due to the fact that Homosexual relations fall under yehareg v’al ya’avor, what ramifications should that have when people cite the acceptance of homosexuality in orthodox judaism as being pikuach nefesh...” (that was the topic) got very out of control. It got to the point where commenters were discussing whether gay people have the halachic obligation to commit suicide or castrate themselves (spoiler alert: THE DO NOT.) I actually don’t think the majority of the commenters (even the ones who made these egregious statements) were coming from a place of homophobia or outright meanness. But the casual way they were willing to discuss this “hypothetical” situation, brought me and many other people who read this thread an incredible amount of pain.
I hope with all my heart that posts like these don’t passively (or actively) lead to the kind of fundamentalist fanaticism that killed Shira Banki. But I actually worry more that they will kill LGBT people in a much more personal way. People talk about pikuach nefesh and many take it very seriously. Yet others mock what they look at as the stereotypical concept of the suicidal LGBT person. They act tired of hearing that they have to be careful about what they say because an LGBT teen (or adult) might end up committing suicide. They feel as if THEIR rights are being encroached upon because they have to be sensitive with their words. I’m not joking here, I’ve heard this time and again. But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. If it saves the life of ONE person to bring up the concept of the at risk of suicide LGBT person, I’ll bring it up over and over and over again. Look, I’m depressed, sad and angry after reading the thread I mentioned AND many others in the days leading up to the Pride Parade in Jerusalem. But I’m just the mother of an LGBT person in the Orthodox world. I’m not a person who is struggling to BE in the orthodox world as an LGBT person. I literally can’t imagine what that is like. A fair amount of LGBT people commented on the thread I mentioned. And they did so with class. And with a lot more respect than I probably would have had. I give them credit. And I hope their words were positive forces for the people who didn’t feel like they COULD speak up. The people who were reading the horrible words written for the sake of an “academic halachic exercise” I hope those people know that their lives are worth something.
This all also comes on the heels of a Rabbi in Israel, Rabbi Yigal Levenstein, who made remarks over 700 other Rabbis and Israeli leaders stating that the IDF’s inclusion of LGBT people is part of a liberal agenda and that LGBT people are perverted people. The good news is that many Rabbis and leaders condemned this statement immediately and soon after. One example is today, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah put out a beautiful statement of condemnation. Here is an excerpt: “As Israel’s Minister of Education Naftali Bennett wrote, “Jewish law is not meant to be a divisive tool … One cannot denigrate an entire community and take shelter behind Jewish law.” On the contrary, Israel and the IDF have always been models for the difficult but critical task of unifying Jews of diverse backgrounds and origins, of advocating for respect for different religious beliefs and practices, and of treating people with different sexual orientations with the equality they deserve.
We are heartened by the overwhelming message coming from so many corners of the Jewish world that we will not allow narrow-minded partisans to drive us from our commitment to the Jewish people as an am echad.”
I wish I could end there. I was saddened to hear that Jerusalem’s mayor, Nir Barkat will not be attending the Pride Parade there in deference to the city’s Orthodox and Ultra Orthodox populations. I understand that life isn’t black and white. And Jerusalem certainly is a city of nuance. So I’m not calling Mayor Barkat homophobic/anti gay or anything of the sort. But I do have to say this. When it comes to the topic of LGBT in the Orthodox world, the anti-LGBT folks are already the de facto winners. They are starting from a place of advantage and anything that Jewish LGBT people are doing to promote tolerance or acceptance of themselves is already an almost insurmountable uphill battle. So by sitting out the parade, all Mayor Barkat is doing is giving credibility to the people who use halacha and the Torah to promote hate and intolerance of LGBT people. I’m an Orthodox Jew. I get the role that halacha plays in our world. I don’t downplay it and I don’t mock it. Nor do I say it has no place. But just like those who are telling the LGBT people who angry with Nir Barkat not to be so black and white about this, I implore Nir Barkat to know that his decision looks black and white. It sends a clear message. And I can only assume it hurts.
I feel that this post has been a pretty big downer, so I want to end on a positive note. Emanuel Miller wrote an article in the Times of Israel titled, Why Religious Jews Must Attend the Jerusalem Pride March. It does exactly what the title suggests. Discusses why Orthodox Jews SHOULD go to the parade. Here is a (large) excerpt:
“I understand why religious people react to the parade so strongly. Yes, the Torah makes abundantly clear that certain things are considered unacceptable. But that doesn’t give religious people a license to relentlessly belittle, mock, and hurl abuse at people whose sexual orientation is different to our own.
It’s time to show that while we can’t agree on everything, we are united in “Ve’ahavta l’reacha k’mocha” — love your fellow as yourself — and note the Hebrew root reya there, rather than the more common chaver. The word chaver indicates an individual we feel close to. The word reya, however, suggests a disconnect. It’s easy to love our friends. The challenge is to love the people with whom we don’t see an immediate bond.
I’m not trying to change your religious views. I’m religious myself. I too believe that the Torah is the eternal word of G-d. Nevertheless, at a time when so many people are hijacking the name of our religion to attack others, it’s important to show that these people stray from our religion’s loving values.
The Jerusalem pride march is a statement that there are homosexual people all around us. The LGBTQ community is very much part of Jerusalem’s social fabric. It’s time we make space for them and show them that we can live together, despite whatever differences of opinion we may have.
Being Jewish means many things. Standing up for people who are isolated, scared and weak is no less a part of Judaism than keeping Shabbat. It’s time to show the world that we, religious Jews, stand together with our brothers and sisters, no matter their sexual orientation, and demand that they not suffer from persecution, threats and derogatory comments.
Is that too much to ask?”
Shira Banki was murdered a year ago because she was standing up for people who are isolated and scared. I hope that tomorrow’s parade is a success and can serve as a legacy to Shira’s memory. May her neshama have an aliyah and may we all learn to work together and accept one another.