Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Our Community's Shame: The Alienated LGBTQ+ Orthodox Jew

Today, a brave student named Joshua Tranen wrote an article in The Commentator entitled "Why I left YU, and Why I'm Writing About It Now."

Joshua is gay, and that is the sole reason he is now studying at Yale University. He did not feel safe at Yeshiva University. We, members of the Orthodox community, have allowed that to happen. And thus, it is up to us to fix it.

When I was in high school, I underwent some very challenging experiences. I was a seeker, someone who asked a lot of questions, attending a school on the Bais Yaakov spectrum. As you can imagine, this situation led to clashes. I was disturbed by teachers' rhetoric, actions and the ways in which they were allowed to treat me (and others). Despite my pain, the school principal and other members of the rabbinate refused to believe me, support me or help me when I was falsely accused of improper behavior. In the end, I switched from that school to the non-Jewish North Shore Country Day School in Winnetka, an experience which brought me a great deal of healing.

Out of my pain, I once wrote a post to the off the derech community saying that I understood them completely. I had been there. I knew what it was like to be betrayed by the rabbis and teachers who were supposed to be your guides and role models. I knew what it was like to be lied about. I knew what it was like to be hurt. I knew what it was like to be so angry that I felt like Judaism itself was at fault. For two years after my high school experience, I did not touch a siddur, a chumash or engage in typical Jewish study. (I did attend TI and take Jewish Philosophy courses, which were refreshing and helpful when it came to forging my understanding of the religion). I was too angry and too hurt.

And that is the reason that I feel the pain of LGBTQ+ members of our community. People like Joshua have to force themselves to "gather the strength required to learn, for yet another day, alongside rabbis that had publicly called gay people an abomination, blamed them for natural disasters, and advocated for conversion therapy—a pseudoscience so dangerous it has been outlawed in many states." He and others live in fear of being "discovered" or outed.

Joshua shared his gay identity with his roommate. The roommate was so disturbed that he immediately moved out. Now, I understand why this might be. It must be disconcerting to realize that the person you are living with potentially views you as a sexual partner. You probably would have behaved differently (in terms of how you dressed, if nothing else) had you known that. Thus, it is likely the roommate simply felt like his privacy had been invaded and was upset. But to Joshua, his roommate's leaving felt like this person, this individual he had thought was his friend, was saying he would not stand by him. It was deeply painful.

I was at YU when a gay student ran for a position on student council, and I saw the posters put up with quotes about homosexuality and bestiality. (I also saw fellow students tear them down.) I was Editor in Chief of The Observer when Dr. Ladin came out as transgender. I and my staff covered her story. It is an issue of the newspaper of which I remain proud. We had an interview with Dr. Ladin, articles about the halakhic process of transitioning, informational content on what gender dysphoria is, student responses, and interviews with other Orthodox or formerly Orthodox transgender individuals. I was at YU when the historic gay panel took place (I wrote the transcript).

I thought we had gotten past this. I thought our community understood. But it appears the same message needs to be repeated once again. Here it is:

It is entirely possible to be a halakhic Jew who believes certain actions (actions, NOT people) are forbidden according to the law and still- STILL- remain loving, respectful and kind. To understand is not to condone.

A Jewish Orthodox LGBTQ+ individual faces immense struggle. But it is up to God to judge-  not us. Our job is to respect the person, to be kind to them, to reach out to them, to always act out of love. And, of course, to remember that this person is keeping many more mitzvot than they may be transgressing (assuming they are even acting upon their identity.)

So how do we fix it? How do we create an environment where people would not laugh at Ben Shapiro's jokes targeted at transgender individuals? How do we raise kind children? Among other things, we need to provide them with information.

I believe that every Jewish day school should have a class that addresses Contemporary Topics and/or Evaded Issues. (Full disclosure: I teach this class!) I think it is essential that students are actually taught the sources on homosexuality and/or transitioning when one is trans. They should see exactly what the halakha says. And then they should also be taught facts. They should know medical facts about what doctors currently believe it means when one is gay or trans. They should be given knowledge and they should be taught compassion.

We are alienating individuals from the Orthodox community. We are going to lose them. Some of these individuals are our best and brightest minds (this young man went to Yale, which should demonstrate something in itself). And yet, if we continue as we have been, we are going to make our gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans children leave Judaism (certainly Orthodox Judaism).

I am not saying you need to approve or condone every behavior or action. But your qualms, if you have them, should be totally motivated by halakhic adherence, not by personal antipathy, ignorance or disgust. You must act and speak with the greatest kindness. If there is something you cannot do because God has forbidden you to do it, the attitude must be one of sorrow. I wish I could tell you this is permitted, but I can't...and I know it pains you...and it pains me, too. I feel your hurt and I am sorry for it. I wish I could change it. LGBTQ individuals comprise our students, friends and family members. We must find a way to keep them with us. The loss we face from their defection- the splintering families, the weakened community, this creation of "us" vs. "them" to our detriment-  is too great.


The Shipper said...

Chana, I'm not clear on your position.

"alongside rabbis that had publicly called gay people an abomination" - Are you suggesting that we should only call the sin of man sleeping with a man an abomination, and not the people? Or are you saying that you don't accept the Torah's labeling of this act as an abomination?

"I thought we had gotten past this." - Are you only referring to Ben Shapiro's statements? Or are you saying that other actions, like the roommate moving out, is something we also need to get past?

AJ said...

I read the article you linked to and you were only able to find one Rabbi who may permit transitioning who was willing to be quoted by name, Rabbi Hillel Yisraeli. It seems that 98% or 99% of poskim hold that transitioning is assur. Given that, I'm not sure why it's outrageous for Ben Shapiro to say that someone who believes they are a member of the opposite gender has a mental illness. If they don't have a mental illness, we're saying Hashem caused them to be born with these feelings which cause them an unbelievable amount of pain, and there's nothing Halacha permits them to do to change that. If we're allowed to say they have a mental illness, then we can recommend they receive therapy to treat them and relieve their suffering by hopefully helping them attain a state where they no longer have these feelings.

AJ said...

Rod Dreher is a religious Christian who write a lot about the negative effects of the liberal attitude toward transgender people. Here are some of his posts:

Chana said...

The Shipper,

I am saying they should only call the act of a man sleeping with a man an abomination, and I would recommend mitigating it by citing the Rashi which explains this is actually shorthand for "Toeh Atah Bah"- "You are making a mistake in this matter" where the suggestion is a mistake is being made in leaving behind women for men.

Ideally, I think it would have been nice if the roommate could have waited till the end of the semester as it was only three weeks away. That having been said, if he couldn't wait, it would have been best to have had an open and honest conversation with Joshua about the reasons that he felt he couldn't stay. That's a tall order for an 18 year old, so I understand why it didn't happen, but it would have been ideal.

When I say we "need to get past this" I mean incendiary remarks, inflammatory rhetoric, and a lack of concern/ thought about the people impacted by one's words. Many of the things rabbis want to say could be said in a kinder way...and I think that's what we need to work on. People should talk with the assumption that a member of their audience is the very person who they are speaking about (or whose actions they are speaking about).

Chana said...


I understand your viewpoint. Two points:

1. God allows for people to go through all sorts of suffering. There are people who are born without limbs, people who are stuck in Aleppo and who are killed by falling rubble or bombs, people who starve to death and the list goes on. I do not see why a just God can allow for all of this to happen but the line has to be drawn at creating a person who has a sexual drive and/or gender orientation that could not be fulfilled per halakha. Research regards pedophiles as real and yet in most cases one cannot truly change that sexual orientation. So pedophiles are required to remain celibate. This is not to equate someone who is gay with a pedophile, but rather to prove the point that God can do something we would not see as just but which He would see as an appropriate challenge for the individual.

2. Even if believing one is of the opposite gender is a mental illness, caution has to be used as to how that is stated. When it is stated in a dismissive or mocking tone such as Ben Shapiro used, it is cruel. This argument has to be made based on kindness. And then there would need to be research done on how many individuals who once considered themselves to be of the opposite gender were actually able to be helped via therapy (were they able to align themselves with their biological sex and did they feel happier and more fulfilled if that occurred). (There's a lot of research that conversion therapy in terms of sexual orientation tends not to work, but I don't know if that same research has been conducted when it comes to transgender individuals).


Avi said...

Of course being transgender is an illness. If it wasn't, then insurance wouldn't cover sex-change surgery!

AJ said...

Thanks for your response. I think criticizing Ben Shapiro's tone is perfectly fair. I also think someone being gay and someone thinking they are transgender are two very different things. Certainly in the Modern Orthodox world, I think many parents wouldn't question their 14-year old child saying they are gay. I do think most Modern Orthodox parents would be very skeptical about their 14-year old child saying they are transgender and want to be called by a name that matches their new gender, wear clothes of their new gender and begin hormone treatments to start transitioning. I think most Modern Orthodox parents would want to see if a therapist or psychologist could help their child work through their issues and see if they could re-identify with their biological sex before taking the above-mentioned radical (and in the case of hormone treatments, permanent and sterilizing) steps. I believe in California there's a proposed law that would make such an action by a parent illegal. Certainly many of the articles on Rod Dreher's site, along with sites like Vox, show many liberals believe that a parent insisting on therapy with such a goal in mind is immoral. I just don't think that's the case. (For a long article on a man named Mike Penner who regretted his gender transition, here's a link: There's also a website that has links to info on people who regret their gender transition:

Also, one accommodation transgender people request strikes me as crazy: that transgender people should be able to use the locker room that matches their gender identity. (I know the North Carolina law combined the issues of bathroom use and locker room use, but I think they should be separated.) What I don't think most people understand is that many transgender women still have their male private parts. (For example, Caitlyn Jenner still has male private parts.) I think such transgender women shouldn't be allowed in a women's locker room where women (and in a locker room for a public pool, young girls) are showering in open showers and walking around naked as they change. People who take the liberal side of this issue disagree with me. Some think I'm a bigot for my position. This is one of the things that is at stake. (For an article about a transgender girl with male private parts in Missouri who started using the girl's locker room, you can click here:

Golda said...

This is so so true. What many people seem to forget is that unlike in American capitalism, the Jewish idea of charity has nothing to do with merit. In the Jewish conception, we give even to the homeless man who may spend the money on drugs, even to the woman too lazy to go to work. And this applies not just to money but to respect, kindness, and basic rights as well. We give these things to people not because we perceive them as deserving - which is what historically has led to so much discrimination and cruelty - but because they are human beings created in God's image and they need nothing else to be considered worthy of respect.