Tonight I talk on a pluralist panel on homosexuality and Judaism

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I am one of six panelists speaking tonight at Monash University. Hineni and MonJSS are hosting a pluralist panel on homosexuality and Judaism.

The other panelists are Michael Cohen, Rabbi Fred Morgan (Progressive), Rabbi Shamir Caplan (Orthodox) and Rabbi Ehud Bandel (Conservative).

It will be an interesting evening to say the least.

More later.

[09/06/10: Read my review of the evening here, along with photos and a link to the address I gave]

Sydney’s Jewish community adopts anti-homophobia/anti-transphobia policy

Hot on the heels of the Victorian Jewish community calling for respect for same-sex attracted Jews, the NSW Jewish community has passed a history-making motion for a policy on counteracting hatred and discrimination against gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender persons*.

The New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies has voted overwhelmingly to implement an anti-homophobia/anti-transphobia policy.

This is fantastic news for the Jewish GLBT community as the NSWJBD finally recognises that there is a demographic within the Jewish community that needs more support.

Roy Freeman — J-Wire, May 26 2010

Congratulations to everyone who supported this history-making policy change, and most especially the dedicated team lead by Roy Freeman from Dayenu.

It is long overdue for the entire Jewish community to understand that same-sex attraction and gender-identity variation is normal and valid, just like being left-handed.  There is no room for intolerance of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, or who simply do not conform to heterosexual or conventional male/female stereotypes.  The Jewish community must move with the times and learn that these are normal, acceptable human behaviours.  The cost of not doing this will continue to be counted in human lives.

* 2010 copy of policy statement on Dayenu archives here.

Israel’s national GLBT association receives award from President Shimon Peres

Israel’s national gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) association, the Agudah, has received an award for volunteerism by the President of Israel Shimon Peres.  That’s quite an achievement.  Read the story in Hebrew here or a translated version here.

Respecting Gay Jews must lead to unconditional acceptance

This week’s edition of Southern Star covers the revised policy of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria (JCCV) that asks for the Victorian Jewish community to respect gay people (read my blog on that here).  This came about as a result of action by the Australian Jewish Democratic Society and people from the Bund movement.  Read their motion put to the JCCV in the October 2009 JCCV plenum meeting here.

This call for respect is definitely a good start.  However the downside of simply not saying bad things about gay people is that potentially no one says anything.  As an example, some people previously only said degrading things about gay people because they feel our homosexual ‘lifestyles’ are an abomination in the eyes of their religion.  Now these people may reluctantly feel an obligation to abide by the JCCV’s request to respect gay people, possibly because the organisation they are a member of is in turn a member of the JCCV, and so bite their tongue and don’t use degrading language to describe us.

So you then have the situation where people are not saying bad things about gay people, which is good, but they’re then not actually saying anything, which is bad, because it makes the issue of intolerance of homosexuality invisible.

The next step that the JCCV must take is to make the issue of intolerance of homosexuality visible.  It claims it’s serious about addressing mental health issues in gay people in the Jewish community because it has set up a reference group to investigate these issues.  It would be good to see some sort of public statement about what this reference group is actually doing, as it’s now 6 months down the track since it was established and there has been no public statement or any form of transparency on its operation.

It would also be good if the JCCV started acknowledging that these mental health issues and the alarmingly high suicidal behaviour didn’t just affect ‘GLBT Jews’ but actually affected the entire community.  I say this because the people who are most at risk are those who have same-sex attractions or gender identity issues but don’t or can’t identify their feelings outwardly and so are not visible as GLBT in the community.  They are “in the closet” and may be in denial of their sexuality or gender identity and in fear of anyone finding out.

These people are someone’s children, siblings or parents.  They’re someone’s friends or business partners.  They’re part of a community that supposedly cares about its people.  Supposedly.

Yes, respect is good, but it’s not enough.  Tolerance is only part of the way there.  Acceptance is the ultimate goal and it must be unconditional.

Michael.

Israel shames the Australian Jewish community by speaking out against homophobia

On the International Day Against Homophobia, May 17 2010, Israel’s Minister of Education, Gideon Sa’ar, said there is no room for homophobia, according to the Really Israel blog.

”There is no place for homophobia. Differences are not a cause for concern. Differences are part of the fabric of our society”

The Australian Jewish community has remained silent for too long on homophobia.  Whilst there are increasing numbers of young people in the community who are living openly as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, there is no mainstream support for same-sex attracted people and still no statement that intolerance of homosexuality is unacceptable.

Orthodox Judaism and other fundamentalist or extreme Jewish sects consider homosexuality incompatible with religious lifestyle.  This intolerance has been proven to put same-sex attracted people, comprising about 10% of the population, at serious risk of suffering mental health issues such as depression, anxiety or self-harm, potentially leading to suicide.

What is needed are more leaders like Gideon Sa’ar, Tzipi Livni, Shimon Peres and Benjamin Netanyahu to declare that homophobia in the (Jewish) community is unacceptable and that our society must completely respect and accept people who are same-sex attracted, as they do anyone else.

The Australian Jewish community must take example from Israel on this important matter and speak out immediately against deeply rooted ignorance, hate and intolerance of homosexuality.  Education is the key to success, and ultimately we’ll all be better off for it.

A small success – the Victorian Jewish community calls for respect for GLBT people

Today I feel a little happier than I have been for a long time.  People are listening and are now acting.  It’s not for lack of trying on my part, I can assure you.

To see overwhelming support for the words (in the JCCV media release of 06 May 2010 – see below):

This council … calls for abstention from any public or private conduct that incites hatred against, serious contempt for, revulsion, vilification or severe ridicule of, another person or group on the ground of their identity (including race, religion, colour, disability, sexual orientation, gender and national origin) or views of that other person or group.”

is something I never imagined I would see.

Let this be an example for other communities around Victoria, Australia and the world.  There is no room for hate or intolerance in our society.

Homosexual, bisexual and transgender women and men are people like everyone else and have the same needs and desires as everyone else.  We need unconditional love and acceptance, not intolerance, hate and exclusion.

There is plenty more work that needs to be done in this area, but this is a good start.

Michael.

JCCV calls for respect for difference

06 May 2010

At the Jewish Community Council of Victoria plenum held on 3 May 2010, delegates overwhelmingly voted for the following amendment to the JCCV’s policy platform:

3.7          Respect

This Council:

3.7.1  ACKNOWLEDGES the distinctive character of the Victorian Jewish community as part of the Jewish people worldwide, with a shared history, culture and religious tradition.

3.7.2   RECOGNISES that irrespective of the common traits that bind us as a community, Victorian Jewry is also diverse and pluralistic and that this is reflected in different, often strongly held views, on a range of issues affecting the Jewish and larger communities.

3.7.3      CALLS FOR respect for any such differences, while affirming that disagreement is only permissible in ways that do not vilify other persons or their views.

3.7.4    CALLS FOR abstention from any public or private conduct that incites hatred against, serious contempt for, revulsion, vilification or severe ridicule of, another person or group on the ground of their identity (including race, religion, colour, disability, sexual orientation, gender and national origin) or views of that other person or group.

JCCV President John Searle noted that the JCCV’s policy platform was a living document, continually updated to reflect the views of its affiliates.  He observed that under his presidency the JCCV had demonstrated an ongoing and increasing opposition to vilification in all its manifestations.

He stated that “it is important to realise that this particular policy is not intended to prohibit robust debate or to demand acceptance of all opinions or lifestyles.  What it does do, however, is set parameters for the conduct of discussion of such matters, asking for respect for difference.  Quite simply it’s about playing the ball, not the person.”

Searle concluded, “While our policies are not binding, they are nonetheless a strong statement of principle and provide guidance to and educate those persons considering a range of issues that affect our community.”

Please address any queries to Geoffrey Zygier at 9272 5566

Click here to see JCCV Policy Platforms 2010 (amended):

Comments on the AJN coverage of the JCCV GLBT Reference Group

On January 12 2010 the AJN reported the establishment of a JCCV reference group to investigate the needs of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) people in the Jewish community.  This reference group is a fat pile of smokescreen and deflection and that if anyone wanted to know what GLBT people need to stop us from suffering depression, anxiety, self harm and suicide, it’s exactly the same as what non-GLBT people need – unconditional love, acceptance, inclusion, visibility – minus the added bigotry, hate and intolerance.  It doesn’t take a law degree to work that much out.  But I digress.

Two comments have been posted to this story.  One by Efron, who’s got his head buried up the same orifice that every other religious nutcase bigot has theirs firmly lodged, and another by Ilan, who is clearly planted in reality and not in some ancient fantasy land.

Poor Efron.  He doesn’t want people to get upset because the JCCV, on the surface at least, are trying to help gay people.  How considerate.  Dear Efron, if you have children and one of them tops themselves because you told them they were the spawn of satan and were dirty filth because they wanted to love someone of the same gender, lets hope you don’t get upset.  Not to mention the child themselves going through living hell because they had to hide their sexuality from you for years for fear of being kicked out of home and the community, or just told to repress their sexuality and pretend to be something they’re not.  But you probably wouldn’t care because you’re a god fearing man.  Best advice I have for you if you aren’t prepared to open your mind to the 21st century is to Foxtrot Oscar.

Thanks for your support Ilan.  Much appreciated.

Michael.


efron says:
January 13, 2010 at 12:11 am

Hasn’t the JCCV learned from the past that pandering to the noisy – and miniscule – gay lobby is a recipe for another debacle?

Have they already forgotten the warnings of the late and lamented Rabbi Chaim Gutnick z”l about this matter?

Do they really again wish to alienate the rabbis, the Orthodox Shuls and the traditional and even irreligious members of the Victorian Jewish community who are either totally opposed to giving this group of individuals a voice on the community’s official forum or are bored and disinterested with the bleating of a few troublemakers?

John Searle should be VERY wary of trying to act “politically-correct” by engaging with such persons in the name of the JCCV.

We understand that they may need help with health and mental issues, suicide prevention, discrimination or any other matter.
Let them go to any of the dozens of organizations that have been established for homosexuals specifically for this purpose. After all, Jewish and non-Jewish homosexuals generally have the same problems and issues. And should a specific “Jewish” matter arise, they can visit a rabbi in private and advice will surely be forthcoming.

Searle should understand that the orthodox communities – together with those who do not believe that homosexuality is a specific Jewish problem – are by far the largest proportion of the Jewish population. It makes no sense to upset them needlessly.


ilan says:
January 24, 2010 at 9:10 am

Below I post a letter I wrote to the AJN 10 years ago in response to that “debacle” of which Efron reminds readers. It’s a shame that people like Efron have not changed in the last decade. If somebody is being pandered to, it is the Orthodox establishment. I hope the Rabbis do not hold the JCCV to ransom by threatening to withdraw funding if they do not get their way, like they did in 1999. The letter reads:

We were shocked when we read about the failure of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria to adopt the motion accepting Aleph Melbourne, the support group for Jewish gay men, as an affiliate at their March plenum.

The failure to adopt the motion has more to do with fear, intolerance and prejudice than with constitutions or standing orders. This is evident by the fact that the lack of quorum which ultimately led to the motion not being passed “did not… prevent the meeting from electing Sandra Lipman as Arts and Culture Committee chairperson.”

There are Jewish homosexuals who live in Melbourne and Aleph represents them and should represent them on the JCCV. By failing to admit Aleph as an affiliate of the Council our Jewish communal leaders send out a strong message: “We don’t want you! We don’t value you! We don’t count you as part of our community! And we don’t even care if you assimilate!” Our organised community has told Jewish homosexuals that they must quash one intrinsic component of their identity. They can be Jewish or gay, but not both.

Those who argue against the proposal citing Halachah as their justification are misguided. The Council is not an Orthodox body and is not governed by Halachah. If, however, one were to argue from an Halachic point of view, it seems hypocritical for particular individuals and organisations to accept Reform and Secular Humanistic representation on the Council but to object to Jewish homosexual representation. One need not support a gay lifestyle in order for one to support Jewish homosexuals’ rights.

We commend NCJW delegate Rhysia Rozen for her comments during the plenum and urge all readers to pressure the leadership of the organisations to which they are members to vote for the proposal when it is discussed again at the next JCCV plenum. It would be an embarrassment for our community if prejudice wins out.

The Executive Council of Australian Jewry remains silent on Gay Youth Suicide

In the aftermath of the August 1 2009 shooting at the Tel Aviv GLBT youth centre and the subsequent AJN Watch hate blog against gay Jews I wrote a letter (Aug 23 2009) to the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ).  Two days later (Aug 25 2009) I followed that letter up with a copy of a letter I sent the Jewish Community Council of Victoria (JCCV).  It was a very tense time, given these events, both locally in Melbourne and overseas in Israel.  It remains disturbing that to the present day neither the JCCV nor the ECAJ have spoken out against this homophobic intolerance and hate.

In my second letter I made mention that the ECAJ Policy Platform page on the ECAJ web site featured Israel at #1 (whilst Australia didn’t feature until at least #13):

The peak body of the Australian Jewish community, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ), does not have a single statement on homophobia. I actually question its priorities and wonder it is it simply a self-serving bag of hot air or if it really gives a damn. First on it’s list of priorities is Israel.    I would have thought that an organisation that spoke on behalf of the Australian Jewish community would actually put Australia first and place some importance on the welfare of Australians. Go figure.

You can see the ECAJ policy platform (“Confirmed in 2008”) here as it stood on September 8 2009.   As of November 2009, just two months after my letter to the ECAJ, you can see here that not only have they moved Australia to the top of their policy platform list, but there are in fact two entire sections devoted to Australia, appropriately placed above a third section devoted to Israel.  Well, that’s quite something.  I’m pleased to see that the ECAJ is listening and has started to get its priorities right.

Sadly though there’s still not a single mention of anything closely resembling a policy on dealing with homophobic hate targeting people in the Jewish community.  Nor is there a policy on the merits of accepting homosexuality as normal, given the overwhelming evidence of destruction religious intolerance of homosexuality has on young people.

I still maintain that topic #27 (Young Adult Representation) and topic #28 (Jewish Burial Rights) would be best combined and simply called “Jewish Young Adult Burial”, at least while there’s no policy dealing with homophobic hate and intolerance.

Wake up ECAJ.  Every day you remain silent and don’t fight the intolerance and hatred of homosexuality in your community, the more blood you will have on your hands.  Suicide amongst same-sex attracted youth is a very real problem in the Jewish community.  One only has to wonder just how much you love your children.

Bobby and Danny: victims of religious bigotry

Bobby and Danny are dead.  They were victims of religious bigotry.  They were someone’s sons and now they’re dead.  They’re dead because their families didn’t understand them and let them suffer and die horrible, miserable lonely deaths.  Their families believed they were doing the right thing because of their own selfish religious beliefs.

These deaths were all avoidable.  If the families of these boys told them they loved them irrespective of their sexual orientation they would probably still be alive today, living happy, fulfilling lives.  But they’re gone, forever.  Their memories live on, but that’s a poor compromise.  These were normal boys.  They deserved better of their families.

Ask yourself if upholding your religious beliefs is worth the death of your children.  In 2009 Suicide Prevention Australia released research that showed people who experience same-sex attraction are up to 14 times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers.  This statistic is frightening.   Add to this that the situation is exacerbated in religious communities and you have a recipe for disaster.

You owe it to your children to ensure they receive the most loving, accepting environment possible.  Religious intolerance is guaranteed to harm them.  This is proven.  The only way to overcome this is to overcome your prejudices and accept them for the wonderful people they are.

Remember Bobby and Danny and don’t let your children become statistics like them.

The world needs more people like Rochelle and Jonathan

The world needs more people like Rochelle Millar and Jonathan Keren-Black.

From time to time I find myself remembering Rochelle Millar.  The world needs more Rochelles.  The world also needs more Jonathans.  They’re decent people.  The world needs more decent people.

Michael.

Rabbi Jonathan Keren Black and Rochelle Millar
Rabbi Jonathan Keren-Black and Rochelle Millar


Gays are people too.  Jonathan Keren-Black.   LBC 04/11/06

At the end of the Noah story, Noah plants vines, makes wine, and gets drunk.  After all that he’d been through, you can hardly blame him!  But in his drunken state, his usual sense of modesty and decency seems to have been set aside – something inappropriate happened.  It is not at all clear what it was.  It involved his son Ham, who may only have seen his father naked – whatever it was though, Ham was damned as a slave for all time.

In our own portion this week, Avram palms off his wife Sarai as his sister.  She goes off to be one of Pharaoh’s wives.  Clearly this is again an inappropriate, at least potentially sexual, relationship.  And the bible abounds with such stories, such as Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar, who he thought was a prostitute, or Potiphar’s wife trying to entice Joseph.

The bible returns time and again to the theme of appropriate and inappropriate sexual relationships.  You probably heard the story of Moses returning to the Israelites – I’ve got good news and bad news, he says.  The good news is I’ve got it down to ten – the bad news is number seven is still in!  So we are reminded that the prohibition against adultery even made it into the ten commandments.

Just because something may have been considered inappropriate to our ancestors of three thousand and more years ago does not mean it is necessarily the same for us today.  For example, they decreed that if a woman was raped in a town, she and the rapist should both be put to death.  The rationale is that if she wanted to, she could have called for help.   Never mind that the rapist could be threatening her with a sharp flint or knife, or that no-one else dared go out to help.  The kind of argument that rightly causes a furore in the western media even today if someone suggests it.

Bear in mind that the goal of our ancestors was to build a big, strong nation – to produce as many children as possible, to successfully conquer the land of Canaan. The first commandment, given to the animals and then repeated to humans, was P’ru U’rvu – be fruitful and multiply.

If anyone felt attracted to their own sex, that was not considered normal or permissible.  It would not produce new children, more soldiers.  And so, right in the heart of Leviticus, we seem to have two strong prohibitions on homosexuality – one who lies with a man as with a woman should be put to death.  When, at a later stage, the ancient rabbis considered the matter again, they decreed that, even if you did have homosexual feelings, you should still marry and have children.  It was not in the feelings that one was sinning against God, but in the action.

Let us wind forward to 1885.  In Pittsburgh, the Reform movement of America held a conference and launched the so called Pittsburgh Platform, one of the formative documents of progressive Judaism.  In part it read ‘we hold that the modern discoveries of scientific researches in the domain of nature and history are not antagonistic to the doctrines of Judaism, the Bible reflecting the primitive ideas of its own age…’.  In other words, we do not consider the Torah to be binding on us, when it seems to conflict with our modern understanding and insight.  Now in 1885 it is likely that many of those wise rabbis of the Pittsburgh platform may well have been strongly homophobic.  Hopefully today we are not.  When we say that all are created in the image of God, we must truly mean it.  All are different, and in sexual identity, some are heterosexual, some are homosexual, and some are in between, or move over time in their sexual identity.  Today we understand that some people have a mismatch between their physical and emotional sexual identity.  None of this makes people better or worse, right or wrong.  Progressive Judaism, progressive religions in general, should not be prejudiced against any sexual identity.  We must address and check our own prejudice, and consider and treat each person as an equal creation of the one, all-loving God.

This is why I spoke last year and again last month at the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer Multicultural conference.  So far as we are concerned, people can be Jewish and Gay, and indeed for years we have been ordaining outwardly gay rabbis within our movement.  Rabbi Zylberman kindly directed me to a website and centre at Hebrew Union College for the study of human sexuality and Judaism.  There I found a prayer for coming out, and even one to use whilst taking medication for changing gender.

I am reminded of what an orthodox rabbi said at the end of the Jewish Christian Muslim conference last year: What I have to go back and explain to my congregation is that I didn’t meet Christians and Muslims, I met PEOPLE.   It is the same with the Queer conference.  I didn’t meet Homosexuals and Gays and Queers and Lesbians and Trans-sexuals – I met people, with cares and concerns about their lives and our world, just like everybody else.  Sometimes, people like to meet in interest groups, where they share something significant and feel safe and comfortable – like AFL, or an Italian, or an Israeli, background.  So we shouldn’t be surprised when gays sometimes also prefer to meet together – indeed they probably face far more prejudice from wider society than Italians or even Israelis!

I am delighted, therefore, to say that we at LBC are able to offer the Aleph group for gay Jews a home for some of their Shabbat, Pesach and New Year Havurot.  And gathering together is also empowering.  The more numbers, the more so.  This is why the Gay Pride rallies have become so important.  You might be aware of the huge battle being waged, so far through the courts, but sadly perhaps this week also on the streets, in Jerusalem.

This week the High Court finally ruled that is could go ahead, but  Yaacov Ederi, the minister responsible for Jerusalem, called on police commander Ilan Franco to reconsider and to transfer it to another city given the confrontations expected.  MK Nissim Zeev of Shas also called for the march to be stopped, saying that the participants should be sent for treatment. According to him 90% of the residents of the capital are against this demonstration.

On Tuesday the police arrested 14 orthodox protestors at an anti-Gay Pride demonstration. On Thursday they released 8 of them. They are not allowed to be in Jerusalem during the next two weeks.

On Thursday evening it was reported that the parade may be cancelled. If the police manpower necessary to safeguard it will interfere with general police operations, they may cancel it, says. Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter.  Sounds like he’s been got at!

I don’t have the latest update – but no doubt Israel will be back in the news again this week!  And of course, I hope it goes ahead safely and spectacularly.  Jerusalem is the capital for all Israelis, not just the ultra-orthodox – within which also, I understand, and as you would expect, there are more than a few gay Jews to be found.

The bible, as we saw, was preoccupied with what it considered to be inappropriate sexual relationships, and, though we would no longer accept its definitions, we would concur that there are appropriate and inappropriate sorts of relationships, and times and places.  Sex is ultimately a personal and private matter, as long as it is not exploitative or harmful.  Perhaps it is really not the realm of religion?

Finally, I mentioned Aleph a few moments ago, but Melbourne also has a Jewish lesbian group, and one of its key members over many years was a lovely woman named Rochelle Millar who I got to meet  just a few times over the past few years.  Rochelle was also involved in running the Australian Gay Multicultural council that organises the conferences.  Like me, she hailed from the United Kingdom, though her accent revealed that she came from across the Scottish border.  She arrived here when she was 14.  Michael Barnett knew her for longer than I did so I thank him for this information. He tells me that Rochelle was very proud of being a gay woman, and also of being Jewish.  Through both communities she made many lifelong friends and was loyal to them all.

Rochelle had an infectious laugh and smile and a sense of humour and outlook on life that made people want to be around her.
Sadly, the pneumonia with which she was first diagnosed turned out to be aggressive lung cancer, and her health deteriorated fairly rapidly over the past few months.  Yet up to the very end Rochelle had a smile on her face and a laugh in her voice.  She was an amazing woman that everybody loved and who loved everybody.  I believe that this was the closest to a Jewish ceremony that she had, and I am proud to be able to share it with you and with Michael and her other friends who are here this morning.  I think Rochelle would be smiling, and would be proud.  And I hope that we, as individuals and as a community, will all be a little more open to those who are a bit different, in some way or other, from ourselves.  After all, are we not all people, and all made in the image of the one, loving God?