By Gideon Bratt
(To mark the shloshim of Shira Banki, a victim of the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade attack, and as a challenge to BAUK, I decided to write about something which has been talked about a lot, but not necessarily ‘on our terms’ and specific to our community/movement. This article does not aim to criticise past practices ‘for criticism’s sake’ but does assume that some criticism may be necessary. It also does not necessarily seek to give answers (though I do give some suggestions) but, rather, seeks to encourage the movement to be asking the difficult questions and suggesting ways to improve in the future.)
“Ben Zoma said: Who is honored? He who honours others.” (Pirkei Avot, 4:1)
This phrase is often cited as one of the sources for the concept of Kavod Habriyot – human dignity – and establishes what should be a basic and obvious tenet of any religion or ethic: relating to the ‘other’ (whoever that may be) with a level of respect and human dignity that befits us as humankind ‘created in the image of God’.
After recent events in Israel, many doubted whether this message had been internalised by certain individuals, and whether their claim to be ‘religious’ (even claiming they were carrying out religious acts) had anything to do with ‘our’ religion. One of the events I’m referring to is the vicious attack at the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade, carried out by someone who claimed to be ‘Ultra-Orthodox’.
Much was written in the following days, (rightly) expressing shock, denouncing the attacker and the community which had ‘allowed’ him to perpetrate his attack, and questioning the connection between his attack and authentic Judaism. ‘Is he one of us?’, ‘does he represent Judaism?’, ‘must I condemn him?’ people asked. But these questions miss the point. Distancing ourselves, claiming he doesn’t represent ‘us’ and condemning the attacker are quick, easy answers. They wash our hands and consciences of the issue without addressing the underlying questions and problems that may have led to the attack, and which are mirrored in other – non-Ultra-Orthodox – communities.
We must ask ourselves, as few did, ‘did we allow this attack to happen?’. One answer came from Rav Benny Lau, speaking in Jerusalem two days after the attack, who said that “anyone who has been at a Sabbath table, in a classroom, in a synagogue, at a football pitch, in a club, or at a community center, and heard the racist jokes, the homophobic jokes, the obscene words, and didn’t stand up and stop it, he is a partner to this bloodshed.” But the challenge extends beyond the attack itself to the challenge of how we approach homosexuality in Judaism and, more specifically, how the Orthodox community relates to LGBT Jews.
In a Jewish News article soon after the attack, one of the directors of Keshet UK asked the questions we should be asking ourselves: “Did we, knowingly or not, create an atmosphere where hatred was tolerated, but diversity was not? Were we careless in our speech, using language to hurt instead of heal? Did we quietly accept the idea that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people were not fully part of our community, when we could have reached out the hand of love, and life?”.
In recent years, the Modern Orthodox world has seen positive (if slow) changes in communal attitudes towards LGBT Jews. In 2010, a group of Israeli Rabbis signed a letter which stated that homosexual Jews “should be acknowledged as full members of the religious community”. The same year, a statement of principles (henceforth SoP) was also signed by hundreds of Modern Orthodox Rabbis from around the world, which has become the new paradigm for approaching this issue in the non-Haredi Orthodox world. It opens with emphasising that “all human beings…deserve to be treated with dignity and respect” and says that “embarrassing, harassing or demeaning [an LGBT Jew]… is a violation of Torah prohibitions”.
In BAUK also, changes have been made in recent years (this alone should not be underappreciated); the past mazkirut has taken positive steps to address this issue in a sensitive way. And yet, many of us have no doubt been witness to instances (even though it is clearly condemned in our machane guidelines) of homophobic language and behaviour, even if not necessarily directed at any individual. Simultaneously, I would posit that more should be done to train tzvatim how to deal with these issues and how to ensure an atmosphere in which no-one should be ashamed about a part of their identity, including their sexuality.
Maybe we should ask UJIA to run a session about sexuality, for madrichim? (I personally only ever covered the topic once, on the UJIA training seminar before Israel Machane. Shouldn’t tzvatim on machane and sviva also be equipped?). Perhaps Keshet UK could also be involved in training for madrichim?
Can we educate about Judaism’s approach to homosexuality (indeed, sexuality in general) better? Should the sole source sheet on the BAUK website about this be updated? Can we provide madrichim with better resources (see Rabbi Amsel’s source sheet and Keshet UK’s guidelines) and give a shiur on the topic? Should the movement leadership sign the SoP (see above)?
We should also be asking about the role of LGBT chaverim in leadership roles. The SoP argues that LGBT Jews “should be welcomed as full members of the synagogue and school community” [and, by reasonable extension, as full members of youth movements]. But it also says that, with certain communal leadership roles, “the entire congregation must be fully comfortable with having that person serve as its representative” and that “it is the responsibility of the lay and rabbinic leadership…to determine eligibility for those offices in line with those principles, the importance of maintaining communal harmony, and the unique context of its community culture.” How does that fit in with the tafkidim process?
As a movement, we must have these discussions, and the bogrim must have the rosh gadol and tenacity to implement any suggestions. Ultimately, a youth movement must not only combat homophobia or train its madrichim, but must engender a positive environment in which every participant feels able and empowered to forge and develop their identity, and in which they can do this without fear of judgement or discrimination.
“The highest result of education is tolerance [and] tolerance is the first principle of community.” – Helen Keller
At Shira Banki’s funeral one month ago, her parents eulogised her saying that she “blossomed like a beautiful flower”. There can be no greater honour paid to her memory, no greater tikkun made for the chillul Hashem which happened, than to make an effort to ensure that BAUK educates towards tolerance and creates a community in which everyone can blossom as an individual.