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More debate please – Pluralist panel offers too much agreement

June 19, 2010 – 7:08 pm5 Comments

A flag with the capacity to unite the homophobic and the anti-Semitic in rejectionism

By Yaakov Gorr

Parsha Korach is a great reminder that Judaism is known for its great debates and great debaters – not only debates between Moshe and Korach but debates between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael, Rabbi Hillel and Shammai, Noam Chomsky and Alan Dershowitz, Emma Goldman and Bella Abzug.  We aren’t like the Catholics – there’s no infallible leader for us. On the contrary, Judaism has flourished because of contests, verbal battles and political controversy.

So I have to say that I was disappointed by the recent meeting (3 June, Monash Caulfield) “A Pluralist Panel on Homosexuality and Judaism” organised by Hineni (Melbourne) and the Monash Jewish Students Society.  A well-attended event to be sure, and Kol haK’vod to the event organisers for organising what was apparently the first  public discussion in the Melbourne Jewish community on anything to do with homosexuality. However, you’d expect that even in a toned-down and respectful discussion, panellists of differing backgrounds would have a machloket (debate).

It is about disputes such as these, where each side (we’re Jews, an argument can have at least twice as many sides as it has disputants) is striving for the “sake of heaven,” that Pirkei Avot says that both sides of the argument will endure forever, because both the one and the other side of the argument are the words of the Living G-d (Elu V’Elu Divrei Elokim Chayim). But in this panel, the argument had only one side; perhaps this was because the haredi community reject pluralist thought and declined (I am told) an invitation to have a representative on the panel.

Former Deputy Principal of Bialik College, Michael Cohen, with Hineni’s Yardena Prawer, moderated the protagonists, who included Rabbi Shamir Caplan (Orthodox), Rabbi Ehud Bandel (Conservative), Rabbi Fred Morgan (Progressive), and Aleph’s Michael Barnett, who spoke of his personal experiences.
Michael Cohen noted that Reconstructionist Judaism has ordained gay and lesbian rabbis since 1985, and in 2007 it elected its first openly gay president in Rabbi Toba Spitzer. The Liberal tradition has ordained gay and lesbian rabbis since 1990 and allowed same-sex unions since 2000, while the Conservative tradition accepted both in 2006.

All three streams of Jewish thought represented by the Rabbis on the panel seemed to agree that gay Jewish women and men were equal within the community and their sexuality needed to be taken into account and not ignored.  The three rabbis seemed to concur that Judaism outlaws only one male-to-male sex act, that of anal sex. None condemned relationships that did not include that act. R’ Morgan went further  – I heard his message as being more supportive of same-sex relationships, which were loving and supportive, than of heterosexual relationships which did not produce children.

R’ Morgan’s position seems similar to that of Baroness Neuberger, the president of Liberal Judaism, who supported amendment to the UK Equality Act, passed by the House of Lords in March 2010. “Liberal Judaism has always stressed the importance of a loving, monogamous relationship, whether it is a same-sex or opposite-sex”. Liberal Judaism believes that any such relationship deserves “kiddushin”, the ‘sanctification’ that is part of the Jewish legal relationship between two members of a couple.

Perhaps even more radical is lesbian Rabbi Ariel Friedlander’s position on the pasuk,  “lying with a man as if with a woman” is an “abomination” (Lev. 18:22). R’ Friedlander’s view appears to be that if we interpret that pasuk literally, it is not relevant to exclusively gay men given that they don’t have sex with women at all. R’ Friedlander however takes a very free position on torah interpretation: “[The Torah provides…]  the legal code of our Jewish ancestors. It was the rules, [but]… it was written for primitive people, who were often nomads. We just don’t live like that anymore. The job of the Rabbi is to reinterpret those ancient texts so that they are still relevant to our lives and faith. … How can you identify with something that was made for nomads in the desert?”

In the absence of a true machloket in the panel, I’ll quote the departed Rebbe Ronald Lubofski z”l, “The core of the philosophy, the religious philosophy, the political philosophy of being Jewish, is in the written word… Some would reduce it to the Ten Commandments etc. and that excludes the notion of homosexuality, and as a consequence it’s a contradiction in terms. You simply cannot consider the two ideals as being compatible…. You’re talking here of fundamentals of life, you’re not dealing here with a sporting organisation where people make a choice to do this or to do that. These are individuals who do not produce families, these are individuals who perform sexually in a way which is aberrant, to say the least, with regard to Judaism. It is something which runs counter to the fundamentals of Judaism, that is the family unit.” (ABC Radio National Religion Report 19/05/99 ).
Sadly the real debate is yet to be had, that with R’ Lubofski’s followers on the one side and R’ Friendlander’s on the other. At the centre ought not be the mere interpretation of the text, but whether our faith ought to have traditional family life at its centre. I myself have difficulty in identifying with an approach which “seeks to reinterpret those ancient texts so that they are still relevant to our lives and faith”. I thought that the job was to reinterpret our lives and faith so that they are still congruent with those ancient texts.

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  • Ari says:

    In a pluralistic panel the debate will in general be muted.  That is the reason I believe R’ Soloveitchik opposed inter-faith dialogue on theological issues.  That is, in contesting theologies there is no room for debate.  So to here – there is not room for debate – The Orthodox believe that all of the Law as passed down through the generations in the Gemarra and the later authorities will always be binding.  The view of the other streams rejects this in some way or another.  That is the crux of the debate.  A pluralistic panel in a such a debate by nature contains no real debate.  At the most, such a debate could revolve around treatment of homosexual members of the community – but that is unlikely to generate any differences in response all the more so when the speakers are representing to the wider community their movements.
    What would be interesting is an Orthodox Panel on homosexuality or a Reform Panel on homosexuality or a Conservative Panel on homosexuality.
    (I live out of the country and did not attend – these are just some thoughts)

  • I agree with Ari: an orthodox debate on homosexuality would be excellent, and there is much halakhic scope to allow such a thing. To paraphrase an eminent New Testament scholar, Bishop N.T. Wright, this is a debate that is currently not being held. Instead, people are simply saying that “you’re only saying that because you’re Orthodox”, without any regard for the manner in which Orthodox Jews are constructing their opinions. As it is, too many Orthodox Jews are not constructing their opinions: they merely repeat by rote that which they think they are supposed to be saying. Perhaps a panel of Orthodox rabbis would do much to dispel that climate and get us thinking again?

  • Daniel Harris says:

    Yaakov – a couple of comments:
    1) “However, you’d expect that even in a toned-down and respectful discussion, panellists of differing backgrounds would have a machloket (debate).” – The question really is what kind of machloket would it be? A worthy machloket, in my opinion, would be one that asked the question “How do we create a space within halakha to allow same-sex relationships to take place for those members of our community who are gay/lesbian/bi etc?” This would be a machloket l’shem shamayim, and one that should be embraced and encouraged, and could take place across denominational boundaries. But I fear that this isn’t the machloket that would take place at the kind of panel you envisage – I think that the machloket would turn into something questioning the very value of someone being in a same-sex relationshiop and questioning the validity of the relationship itself. This would not be a machloket l’shem shamayim – it would be a machloket based on fear of those members of our community that have traditionally been located on the fringe or outside the community. I can’t accept that this quesion would even be valid nowadays, let alone the associated machloket.
    2) “I thought that the job was to reinterpret our lives and faith so that they are still congruent with those ancient texts.” I think this is part of the problem of orthodoxy today! Halakha has always been catching up to society, until a couple of hundred years ago. Our halakhic values were defined by our social values – e.g., the halakhic status of women was defined by their social status. When social values change, halakha can and should adapt to suit these. At some point things got swapped around, and now in the orthodox world the social role of women is being defined by their halakhic status, which is of course rather outdated. But now there are communities where this paradigm is being questioned, and the halakhic status of women is being updated to reflect their equal status in society. The same thing can be said for same-sex relationships – maybe it’s time halakha caught up with society. That’s not to say that we ignore halakha or think that it’s irrelevant – on the contrary, our value of halakha should be such that we are willing to adapt it and develop it, not simply ignore it.

  • I just stumbled across this topic. Pity the Galus Austris doesn’t offer an option to subscribe to new topics by email.

    I remain bewildered that people find it necessary to have any debate on the acceptability or otherwise of any aspect of homosexuality. I posted current respected scientific literature earlier on GA that clearly demonstrates any intolerance of homosexuality leads to harmful behaviour in affected individuals. What you get is depression, anxienty, self-harm and suicide in same-sex people who are not allowed to express their nature desires.

    The real debate should be on why religions should be allowed to get away with perpetuating this form of sick abuse on society.

    Just for a moment think about if people were debating whether it was permissible to practice being Jewish in Australian society, because it was seen to be a perversion and a sickness.

    As Lubofsky, I’m glad that he’s dead because the way he tricked and deceived me in 1999 was about one of the lowest things I would have ever expected of a ‘respected’ rabbi. He was a sick, depraved individual who was not worthy of any respect. In 1999 he called me to his house, we chatted amicably for about an hour on what was happening regarding the Aleph Melbourne membership application to join the JCCV, then turned everything I told him against me on the fated night at the JCCV Plenum meeting in May that year. Read his address in the transcript. It has overtones of a Nuremberg rally. The way he abused me was simply disgusting.


  • Apologies for the few typing mistakes in my previous posting. I would correct them if it were possible here.

    “Galus Australis…”
    “As for Lubofsky…”


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