JERUSALEM – Dozens of Israeli rabbis on Sunday called on their communities to act with tolerance and respect toward gay and lesbian congregants.
Stopping short of endorsing homosexuality as an acceptable norm, the rabbis said gays and lesbians should still be “accepted in the community and contained by society.”
The decision was issued in a halachic [i.e. according to Jewish law] opinion published by the Beit Hillel organization of religious-Zionist rabbis.
Gays can “serve as prayer leaders and fulfill any role in the community,” the statement issued by Beit Hillel said.
The statement is the result of lengthy discussions inside Beit Hillel, an Orthodox organization viewed mainly as representative of the moderate stream of religious Zionism but also includes mainstream rabbis.
It comes after several calls by Orthodox rabbis in Israel and the U.S. to refrain from condemning gay culture within Jewish communities.
Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, who died in 2014, said in 2012 that homosexual men and women should not be ostracized any more than people committing other sins, such as violating the Sabbath.
While the physical homosexual act is forbidden according to Jewish law, Lichtenstein, a senior figure in modern Orthodoxy, said homosexual people should still be accepted in their communities.
In August 2015, Israelis were shocked when an ultra-Orthodox extremist, Yishai Schlissel, stabbed six people at the Jerusalem Pride Parade. One of his victims, Shira Banki (16), later died from her injuries.
The act was universally condemned in the country, including by rabbis who oppose gay and lesbian behavior vehemently.
Banki’s parents were present at the conference in northern Israel on Sunday where the Beit Hillel document was presented.
“The issue of homosexuality creates embarrassment among many in our communities,” the document states. It goes on to say that it seeks to forge “a path combining [religious] justice with grace and the path of peace. We hope the balance and synthesis contained in this document will help increase the power of Torah and bring greater love, camaraderie, and peace among people.”
According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the authors of the document met with representatives of Havruta, an organization of religious gays and lesbians.
The document does not mention the words “gay” or “lesbian,” referring instead to “those with a sexual orientation toward the same sex.”
“There is no way to allow sexual relations among members of the same sex” according to Jewish law, it said, but
Torah and halacha prohibit the deeds, not the orientation, and for this reason, people who are attracted to their own sex, be they men or women, are not at fault morally or from the point of view of halacha. They are bound by the laws of the Torah, and can act on behalf of the community and fulfill any community role like any other member of the community.
The text acknowledges that gays and lesbians’ lives are “usually harder than others and they face many challenges.”
Regretfully, there still exists the need to emphasize that the same-sex orientation is not a matter for ridicule or the expression of disgust. Just as one would not think of mocking those who are physically, behaviorally, or mentally challenged, so one should not mock those who are attracted to members of their own sex. On the contrary, the commandment of “Love thy Neighbor” and the prohibition on causing harm should be especially adhered to.
According to Haaretz, Havruta issued a statement describing the Beit Hillel document as “historic” and “a very significant milestone on our continuous struggle for recognition, acceptance, and containment” by society. Havruta expressed pride “that our position was considered during the composing of this historical document, which we hope will start a dialogue among equals.”
Havruta noted that the document was lacking in some respects, like the complete avoidance of mentioning transgender people. The organization said it was “backing Beit Hillel rabbis in this significant step, hoping that it will promote additional actions in the near future.”