This year on Yom Kippur - one of the most important holidays of the Jewish year - Rabbi Gersh Lazarow, Senior Rabbi of Melbourne’s Temple Beth Israel, made a bold statement about Jewish values in his sermon. Clad all in white, Rabbi Lazarow spoke passionately to the packed room of over two thousand people about the ways that the LGBT+ community has been the subject of discrimination, violence and hatred - just as Jews have. Pointing to the endemic rates of depression and suicide among LGBT+ communities, he noted that these “are numbers we simply cannot ignore.” On the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Rabbi Lazarow stated his intention to “loudly and proudly declare that at Temple Beth Israel, any two people regardless of their gender, can have their marriage recognised not only by God and the Jewish community, but the civil society too.”
There are a range of views within the Jewish community about marriage equality in particular, and the acceptance of homosexuality in general. Liberal Jews of various denominations have become increasingly accepting of the place of LGBT people in their communities. In 1996, the American Union for Reform Judaism, America’s largest Jewish domination, adopted a resolution in favour of marriage equality. The smaller Reconstructionist movement followed suited in 2004, in adopting full equality for same sex marriages. In 2012, the Conservative movement voted in favour of performing same-sex marriages also. Finally, in 2013 the World Union for Progressive Judaism (of which Temple Beth Israel is a part) passed a resolution in favour of marriage equality, following on from previous resolutions that had upheld the equal position of LGBT+ Jews in the progressive movement.
Opinion in the Orthodox community, the largest Jewish denomination in Australia, however, is considerably more negative about marriage equality. A majority of Orthodox rabbis are opposed to marriage equality, and indeed some are opposed to any acceptance of gay, lesbian and bisexual people at all. The crux of the matter is a verse in the Torah, the Jewish holy book: “If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them” (Leviticus 20:13) This verse has been taken as an unambiguous commandment in halakha, Jewish religious law observed by Orthodox Jews (transgender acceptance or lack thereof is covered in another verse of Torah). A minority of Orthodox rabbis, including celebrity rabbi Shmuley Boteach, have attempted to interpret halakha more liberally on the issue of marriage equality, but this remains controversial. Rabbi Lazarow criticised Orthodox intransigence on LGBT+ acceptance quite bluntly in his sermon, saying that “history has repeatedly proven that where there is sufficient rabbinic will, there is always a halakhic way. That is to say, that even religious laws can change if the rabbis want them to. Well we have regrettably not arrived at this point in mainstream Orthodoxy.”
Some Jews have attempted to read Leviticus in historical context, seeing the commandment as referring to a prohibition against mimicking the religious practices of the ancient Israelites’ neighbours, some of whom engaged in rituals with temple sex workers of both genders. Rabbi Noel Levinger has argued that “this text in Leviticus could not have been prohibiting long-term, loving, open, committed relationships between people of the same genders—because such relationships were probably inconceivable to the Torah’s human editors. Instead, the Torah seems to be talking about sex in the context of non-Israelite religious practices, or abusive uses of power, or some kind of sexual contact outside established, consensual relationships.”
Other progressive Jews have looked to other parts of the Torah for moral guidance in the acceptance of homosexuality. Many Jews consider the idea of btzelem Elohim, the fact that in Torah all people are considered to be made in the divine image, to supercede Leviticus. Johnathan Barnett, president of Jewish LGBT+ organisation Keshet tells me that btzelem Elohim means that, “it’s the equality of all people. We’re all the same, we just look at things differently.” This equality means that “we all deserve to be treated the same if we’re in the same kind of relationship.” For Barnett, marriage equality confers a symbolic recognition important to LGBT+ couples and their children. Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio of Sydney's Emanuel Temple agrees, stating in an impassioned video posted on Facebook earlier this year that “I don’t believe that God or humanity would be created in the way that we were if we couldn’t honour and sanctify sacred partnerships of same-sex couples in the same way as we do with heterosexual couples.”
As a result, the liberal movements in Australia have worked hard on LGBT+ inclusion in their communities - and Keshet is increasingly working with Orthodox synagogues on LGBT+ inclusion, too. Kehilat Nitzan, Australia’s first Conservative synagogue, states on its website that it welcomes “everyone regardless of age, gender or sexual orientation.” Several progressive synagogues in Melbourne even celebrate the Midsumma LGBT+ festival with annual Pride services on the Sabbath. Rabbi Lazarow noted that “gays and lesbians are part of our TBI community. We participate in nearly every other aspect of their religious lives. We bless and name them as infants, we celebrate with them as they become bnei mitzvah [ie bar or bat mitzvah], we bury their grandparents and parents and eventually them too. But right now we are barred from fully participating in their marriages, because the Federal marriage act says that marriage can only be between a man and a woman.”
This liberal position is at the moment, admittedly, a minority in Australia’s majority Orthodox Jewish community. Yet it is one with a solid theological backing and the zeal of justice behind it. Rabbi Lazarow finished his sermon with a plea. He said, that “the LGBT members of our community need our support. If we can do this, if we can do this extraordinarily simple thing, then this will not only be a good year for the LGBT community, but it will also be a good year for us, and our entire nation.” Amen.
Shaun Micallef's Stairway to Heaven airs on SBS on Wednesdays at 8.30pm. Watch all the episodes online after they air on SBS On Demand. Watch the first episode below: