Identity, Politics, Religion, Sex & Gender

Chicago Rabbinical Council: Some of our Best Friends are Gay

This is a guest post by The Neo Nazir, a nomadic Jew who spends zes time worrying that the US might actually elect Santorum and that ze and everyone reading this post will be hurled into a den of wild, indigenous mountain lions, only to be devoured limb by limb.
Newsflash! Orthodox Judaism is not the bellwether of queerness. Given Orthodox Judaism’s official position on non-heterosexuality, one hardly expects Orthodox communities to offer a fully understanding dialogue on homosexual identity.  But today, even the orthodox are realizing that they can no longer simply sweep LGBTQ issues under the rug.
Tonight in the Chicago area, a controversial event originally scheduled for early January, will be held at Congregation Or Torah, a large modern-Orthodox community in Skokie, IL.  This event, sponsored by a number of major Chicago-area Orthodox synagogues and a local Chabad community, will attempt to broach the subject of homosexuality in the Orthodox community, featuring two out-of-town speakers, described by the event’s promotional blurb as “two of the world’s leading authorities on the Torah’s perspective on homosexuality,” Rabbi Dr. Barry Freundel and Rabbi Chaim Rapoport.
Compassion? Maybe Not.
On the morning of Sunday, January 8, 2012, congregants of the participating Orthodox communities received email notice of the last-minute cancellation of a Chicago Rabbinical Council (the CRC—not to be confused with the CCR, for the dyslexics among you)-sponsored event, entitled “Tradition and Compassion: Homosexuality and the Orthodox Community,” due to “over-politicization” of the event, which “threatened to eclipse the important Torah message of the program.”  Anyone who read the original event description will notice a marked difference in tone and emphasis between this original program and the event’s current incarnation. Even more striking is the change of the talk’s title from “Tradition and Compassion: Homosexuality and the Orthodox Community” to “Conflict of Identity: Homosexuality and the Orthodox Community.” Mention of the Chicago Rabbinical Council is conspicuously absent in the new event announcements as well.
So what led to the sudden cancellation? I have had the chance to speak with members of both the local Orthodox and the gay community, and the controversy seems to have sprouted from the use of the word “compassion” in the original event title.  Both groups point to the other in explaining the event’s curiously abrupt cancellation last month: one rumor holds that the gay community took offense at the suggestion that homosexuality is something worthy of pity (such as the word compassion might suggest) and that massive protests against the event were under way; another rumor suggests that several key figures in the Orthodox community objected to a public discussion of the topic and, in particular, to the word compassion in this context, as such a phrasing would suggest, perhaps, acceptance (chas v’shalom!).  Neither group had specific names for the other side.

One local Orthodox couple with a gay son responded to the cancellation by hosting an open discussion on Orthodoxy and homosexuality in their home.  In his blog, their son, now a college student in New York, referred to an anti-gay letter signed by 100 rabbis in response to the event.
Perhaps the anti-gay letter refers to “Torah Declaration, Petition, re: The Torah Stance on Homosexuality,” a 2011 document drafted by several orthodox rabbis, which, among other things, advocates the use of so-called reparative therapy (to ‘correct’ an individual’s homosexuality). Marcus Bachmann, anyone?  Interestingly, those rabbis affiliated with the letter/movement which believes that individuals who experience what they call SSA (same-sex attraction) can—and should–‘overcome’ such an ‘affliction’ refer to themselves only as “the Committee.” Ah, they even have a flare for the Kafka-esque.
Either way, the Chicago event was somehow re-scheduled, this time with a rather unambiguous agenda:

We think that we know the Torah’s view. How does that square with the idea gaining currency in society that it is a legitimate lifestyle? What does Torah really say on the matter? This informative evening will feature two of the world’s leading authorities on the Torah’s perspective on homosexuality, Rabbi Dr. Barry Freundel and Rabbi Chaim Rapoport.

Modern 0, Orthodoxy 1
If we are to learn anything from the 2010 RCA convention (in which it was unanimously resolved that women cannot be ordained as rabbis) it is that mainstream Orthodox Judaism has now come to define itself by a strict enforcement of conservative gender roles, as determined by their construct of the Jewish people’s eternally immutable mesorah.  While these gender roles and expectations remain essentially the same as before, mainstream Orthodoxy now seems to seek and affirm its institutional legitimacy by defining its position on gender roles against more liberal Orthodoxy, such as the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshiva Maharat types.  And if female rabbis, in other words, female leaders and teachers (something never explicitly forbidden by Jewish law, even in ancient times) prove unsettling and existentially threatening to these rabbis, one can only imagine their absolute terror at the prospect of open homosexuality in their communities. As Conservative Judaism becomes increasingly accepting of the LGBTQ community, the Orthodox community appears to step up their anti-gay game, in yet another gesture of desperation in the face of an on-going identity crisis. Let us hope that tonight’s panel in Chicago does not espouse views such as those promoted in the aforementioned “Torah Declaration” and instead embraces a model of actual ahavat Yisrael, honest love of one’s fellow Jew…which should be extended to all.

3 thoughts on “Chicago Rabbinical Council: Some of our Best Friends are Gay

  1. Seems that the cRc is not part of this event anymore, but several mainstream Skokie and WRP shuls indeed are. Perhaps they needed time to bring these new partners aboard…
    Even if there seems to be a different tone at work here, the notion of this event being held at all feels like a small step forward. If the title seems to lean toward a certain direction, perhaps its a small price to pay to begin having important conversations in the Orthodox world that open the door toward treating homosexuals as humans and not pariahs.

  2. Definitely seems like something went on internally in the CRC. The original event invitation said the opening remarks would be from the Av Beit Din of Chicago, Rav Gedalia Dov Schwartz. Also interesting is the change of speakers: they originally advertized that R’ Freundel (who still came), Rabbi Judah Dardik of Oakland, CA, and Benzion Sorotzkin would all be speaking. I couldn’t make it last night, but there had to be at least a few CRC-affiliated rabbis in attendance. I agree with Adam though–this is ultimately a step towards something better.

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