Hebrew Institute instructed to cool it on same-sex unions


Same-sex marriage has been the law of the land for some time now, but many religious institutions — like Orthodox Judaism — refuse to embrace this “modern” way of thinking, citing laws that go back hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

The Hebrew Institute of Riverdale is Orthodox, but has long been known to follow it’s own path in grappling with the strictures of traditional Jewish law to include women and LGBTQ Jews. It hosted a panel in 2016, for example, called “Building a Jewish Future Outside the Closet,” which focused on LGBTQ Jews in Orthodoxy, and its founding rabbi, Avi Weiss, was one of the signatories of a groundbreaking 2010 statement of principles by Orthodox leaders asserting an “obligation to treat human beings with same-sex attractions and orientations with dignity and respect.” The shul even congratulated same-sex couples on their weddings in its newsletter. 

But announcements of marriage celebrations in violation of Orthodox law? No more. 

The Orthodox Union — the largest association of Orthodox synagogues in the United States — has reinforced its opposition to same-sex marriage congratulations, calling them an “institutional endorsement” of something it considers a sin.

Orthodox Jewish law, or halacha, prohibits same-sex marriage. That means Orthodox rabbis can’t officiate same-sex weddings — making Orthodoxy rather unique in a vast Jewish community where Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements allow it.

Complying with the union doesn’t mean HIR is abandoning the LGBTQ community, senior rabbi Steven Exler said, although he declined to discuss specifics.

“We’re not speaking to the media on this because of how delicate it is,” Exler said in an email. “There are a lot of subtleties that just won’t come out clearly in print. LGBTQ inclusion is so central to what we’re about, but this story isn’t the right way for us to be able to express that.”

Exler wasn’t alone in staying quiet. The Orthodox Union refused to comment as well. 

But Tom Gardner, rabbi at the Riverdale Temple — a progressive Reform congregation — was more forthcoming.

“I certainly don’t think HIR intends to reject them,” Gardner said, “but how can you say, on the one hand, ‘I don’t reject you, I appreciate you, I want you as a member of our community,’ and on the other hand, ‘I don’t recognize your marriage, I don’t recognize your love for this person.’”

Gardner was surprised when he heard the news given HIR’s reputation of embracing diversity.

“They’ve really been at the forefront of hesed and kindness,” Gardner said, “and really treating each person as a human being, created in the image of God.”

And he’s not certain where this will lead.

“I’m sure they’ll continue to do whatever they can to welcome and acknowledge all Jews,” Gardner said, “whether they are straight, gay, or anywhere on the spectrum.”

The Modern Orthodox movement, which HIR is a part of, is “one of the most powerful and fascinating movements in modern Judaism,” Gardner said. At the crux of that movement is finding a kind of middle ground “that says ‘We’re going to be Orthodox, we’re going to keep halacha, but at the same time, we’re going to do all we can to treat each person well, to understand what it is to live in modern society.’”

Mordechai Levovitz, executive director of Jewish Queer Youth — a nonprofit organization that focuses on Orthodox, Hasidic and Sephardic LGBTQ teens and young adults — put the blame on the new policy not on HIR, but the Orthodox Union itself.

“We have a case of a very large institution bullying a small shul,” he said. “In any case of bullying, why would you blame the entity that is bullied?”

Levovitz pointed to “very real problems” afflicting young people within the Orthodox LGBTQ community — “compulsive sex, unsafe sex, getting STDs, getting HIV,” as well as drug use. Some 70 percent of those who come to the JQY’s weekly drop-in center at Congregation Bet Simchat Torah in Midtown Manhattan report being suicidal.

“Teens and youth and children are suffering,” Levovitz said. “And they’re (the OU) worried about saying ‘congratulations’?

“It’s one thing to be troubled by halacha and Jewish law with respect to homosexuality,” Levovitz added. “It is a complicated and confusing issue, much like many Jewish laws that we have to really hold at once even though they may contradict our ethics. But in no case do you not allow someone to be happy for another person’s happiness.”

Levovitz credited HIR for being among a growing number of Orthodox synagogues that “take the needs and care and love of its membership seriously.”

The union’s policy could stoke some of the conflict between traditional Orthodox groups and more liberal ones like HIR — especially how both can fit in the union.

“Orthodox Union must be a very big tent,” Gardner said. “But how big is that tent?”

Levovitz cautioned against an unyielding commitment to laws without considering their impact on people.

“This has nothing to do with whether marriage is acceptable or not,” he said. “This has to do with whether someone’s happiness and self-worth is something worth celebrating. And when you take that away, you put them at risk.”