ON the face of it, we should all have nothing but praise for the United Synagogue’s Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, who has issued detailed guidance for communities under his authority relating to the treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT+) schoolchildren.
This document carries the imprimatur not only of Rabbi Mirvis but also of KeshetUK,
a body founded in 2011 and which claims to have become “the sole organisation that works across the Jewish community to deliver training to promote the inclusion of LGBT+ people in all areas of Jewish life in the United Kingdom”.
So in a sense, the very publication of the guidance reflects the hechsher (so to speak) that Rabbi Mirvis has given to KeshetUK and, of course, which KeshetUK has reciprocally given to him and his office.
This is indeed a milestone. But is it also — as some impetuous enthusiasts would have us believe — a signpost? Does it mean that Jewish orthodoxy has signalled a new relationship with LGBT+ communities?
I think not. Much of the document that Rabbi Mirvis has issued consists of information and advice to which no one — certainly no Orthodox Jew — could possibly take exception.
Like yiddisher motherhood and kosher apple strudel, the guidance exudes values to which we can all — well, almost all — subscribe. There can be no doubt that historically, Jewish children and young people struggling with their sexuality have been exposed to unfeeling prejudice and pernicious bullying.
I have used this column to draw attention to some of the more shocking examples of such behaviour that have surfaced in recent times — for instance, the case that was heard in Manchester last year involving a transgender woman from an ultra-Orthodox kehilla who was denied access to her children (whom she had fathered when a man) because the judge decided that the likelihood of the children and their mother being “marginalised or excluded” were access to be granted, was “so real, and the consequences so great, that this one factor, despite its many disadvantages, must prevail over the many advantages of contact”.
The guidance that Rabbi Mirvis has issued stresses, instead, the halachic prohibition of bullying.
It points out that, halachically, to humiliate someone is akin to murdering them. It reminds us all that in the context of high rates of suicide among LGBT+ people, we are all under an absolute obligation (chiyuv) to save a life.
So we are. But that does not exempt us from adherence to other obligations, of equal rigour and severity.
The shocking fact is that in the entire document that Rabbi Mirvis has issued, there is but one reference — and it’s a passing reference at that — to the expectations of Orthodox Judaism in relation to sexual relationships between adult males.
“We are, of course,” says the document, “aware of the Torah’s issurim (prohibitions) here, including Vayikra/Leviticus 18:22, but when homophobic . . . bullying is carried out with ‘justifications’ from Jewish texts, a major Chilul Hashem (desecration of God’s name) is caused.”
Quite right. But just because we condemn homophobic bullying — as I hope we all do — we are not exempt thereby from living our lives according to the issurim contained in Leviticus 18.
Why did Rabbi Mirvis not take the opportunity to stress this obligation in the guidance he has produced?
His failure to do so has triggered a predictable backlash from the charedi world. On the eve of the Jewish New Year, the Vaad Rabbonim [rabbinical council] of Chinuch UK (an umbrella body established earlier this year to protect the interests of charedi schools) declared as follows:
“You may have heard that Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis . . has produced guidance relating to protected characteristics [i.e. LGBT+ lifestyles]. We are communicating to all the authorities [I understand that this includes the British government] that this guidance is relevant only to schools that fall under the authority of the Chief Rabbi.
“Chinuch UK schools, which are attended by the majority of Jewish children in England, follow the guidance of the Vaad Rabbonim of Chinuch UK.”
Whether Chinuch UK schools are “attended by the majority of Jewish children in England” is a moot point, but in the context of the wider issues raised by the guidance issued by Rabbi Mirvis, it’s irrelevant.
The fact of the matter is that the guidance has now been comprehensively repudiated from within the Orthodox world – most notably (September 15) by the Anglo-Israeli sage Moshe Sternbuch.
The tragedy is that it’s precisely within that world that guidance on LGBT+ issues is most urgently needed.