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Israel and LGBT Rights: A Work in Progress

Over the last number of years, Israel’s extraordinarily progressive positions on gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people has almost made up for the occupation of the West Bank.  I know that sounds ridiculous and, of course, it is.  But the reason I station them side by side is that as a progressive Zionist I have been embarrassed by the growing settlements in the West Bank.  And as a progressive Zionist I have enjoyed overwhelming pride from Israel’s remarkably forward support of gays and lesbians.  The GLBT community is safe and thriving in the heart of the Middle East—Israel—while every surrounding country is hostile and dangerous for our community.

By way of full disclosure, I’m a lesbian rabbi.

So when Education Minister Shai Piron, the number two in Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, spoke recently against the legitimacy of gay and lesbian couples, my heart went out to Israeli gays and lesbians, especially to the youth.  And I would have been embarrassed, except for that I’m buoyed by the rigorous debate in Israel that followed.

Piron’s remarks were, “I think it’s a Jewish State’s right, maybe even its duty, to say to same-sex couples who decide to live their lives together: this is not a family.”

Once I learned that he had offered an apology, I sought to write a piece on the power of remorse and t’shuvah (repentance).  Unfortunately, if you look at Piron’s apology, he does not in any way retract his remarks.  On the contrary, he makes the point that, “it’s not up to me to decide what a family is and what it is not.”  In other  words, he admits that if it were up to him, families like mine would not be considered a family.  All he is conceding is that he doesn’t have the ability or right to make that decision for us.

This should come as no big shock considering that, according to “The Times of Israel,” Piron, an Orthodox Rabbi who was the head of a religious-Zionist yeshiva, said before he joined Yesh Atid that “homosexuality could be fixed.”  Piron and Lapid later stated, when Piron entered public service, that Piron had, “changed his views.”

So then what do we make of the fact that openly gay TV host Asi Azzar expressed support  for Piron despite his comments because his actions in the Knesset, according to Azzar, have been helpful to the gay community?

This reminds me a bit of how we feminists looked the other way at Bill Clinton’s sexual harassment of women because he took such pro-female positions when it came to the law and his bully pulpit.

Piron is not where he should be on the issue of gays and lesbians.  We err if we make allowances for his homophobia just because he is less hostile than other Orthodox Rabbis.  And we make a mistake when we forgive someone simply because they are not as homophobic as they once were.  As an American resident it is not my place to call for the resignation of an MK.  But I think that it is imperative to keep criticism of his position highlighted so as not to make room for a homophobic point of view just because we are grateful for the dialogue.  And if I lived in Israel, I would be protesting his leadership as Education Minister as much as I would protest West Bank settlements.  They are bad for Israel and bad for the Jews.

My parents are Sabras who met while serving in Tzahal and moved to the US in the late 1950’s.  When they became American citizens they had to swear that they were not homosexuals.  We have come a long way in the United States and any gay activist knows that individuals often come along slowly on this issue, while others awaken suddenly.

Okay Shai Piron, kudos to you for not being as anti-gay as you used to be.  And thank you for wishing that you hadn’t hurt people’s feelings.  And I am glad that you sometimes vote correctly on LGBT rights.  But you are not where you should be.  You are a work in progress.  If you can find access to a fast-forward button that gives you the wisdom and courage to be diametrically opposed to the position of most Orthodox leaders, I will be very proud of you.

 Rabbi Karen Bender is one of the contributors to the wide-ranging anthology “The Sacred Encounter”. Her chapter, “How to Respond to Bible-Thumping Homophobia, Or: Judaism as Evolutionary If Not Revolutionary” deals with important and controversial issues of homosexuality in the bible.


Books Social Justice

First Encounter with The Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality

Here’s a hint that the intersection of Judaism and sexuality is a complex, multi-faceted, and endlessly fascinating topic: the new CCAR anthology, The Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality is 810 pages, with over fifty contributions from clergy and thought-leaders from the Reform movement and beyond.

Clearly, there is a lot to say – and I’m both encouraged and excited by the depth and breadth of perspectives put forward by the book’s editor, Rabbi Lisa Grushcow, and the many authors included in this book. No one takes the easy way out, as each essayist tackles a wide range of issues head-on, employing new, creative approaches for textual analysis, ritual creation, and contemporary policy debates. From same-sex marriage, to infertility, to creating sacred space in cyberspace, these of-the-moment topics address age-old questions with refreshing honesty and intellectual rigor.

We enrich and sanctify these conversations when we convene them within Jewish communities, and this anthology provides us with an incredible tool to do so.

So – where to start? We have synthesized the incredible material included in this volume into a study guide, providing both topic-based tracks and chapter-by-chapter discussion questions.

The tracks, which include Marriage, Social Justice, Sexual Ethics, and more, are appropriate for a variety of adult and young adult education sessions. Each track includes relevant sub-topics and chapters. You could opt to teach the entire track as a longer, multi-part course, or select a particular sub-topic and its associated chapters in the book for a one-time discussion.

We also created tracks that include topics of particular interest for a WRJ/Sisterhood group, MRJ/Brotherhood group, synagogue teen group, or youth workers to discuss together. Synagogue boards may wish to study together using the tracks that include Reform Movement policy perspectives or improving LGBTQ Inclusion. The tracks also serve as a useful topical index – if you’re looking to recommend one chapter for a couple in pre-marital counseling to read, the Marriage track distills sub-topics from sexual intimacy to ritual and legal innovation.

The second part of the study guide includes discussion questions for every chapter of the book. You might use these questions in an adult education course covering one or more of the track-based topics. You could also employ the questions as a starting point for personal reflection after reading a particular chapter. Many of the questions are geared toward how the ideas in a given chapter could be implemented in your synagogue or local Jewish community.

Finally, The Sacred Encounter is full of beautiful personal reflections related to the broader topics in the anthology. Included in many of the tracks in the study guide, these reflections also provide an accessible entry-point to the book as a whole.

We look forward to hearing how you are teaching and discussing the many perspectives included in The Sacred Encounter. How do you plan to teach on any of these topics? Please let us know which tracks, discussion questions, and chapters spark the most exciting debates for you! This is only the beginning of what we know will be an incredible conversation.

Liz Piper-Goldberg, CCAR Press Rabbinic Intern/HUC-JIR ‘15, wrote the study guide for The Sacred Encounter

The study guide for The Sacred Encounter is available for free as a downloadable PDF