Statement on Homosexuality in Jewish Schools

In this important declaration, Rabbi Mirvis lends his stature within the Jewish world to support the inclusion of LGBTQ+ students in Jewish schools and outline the religious foundations for such an approach. His statement offers guidance to school leaders in both the ways that they approach this population of students and how they choose to frame their approach in policies and communications, within and beyond the school walls.

A priority for every school is the wellbeing of its students. Numerous professional and lay leaders of our schools and many rabbis have shared with me their view that there is an urgent need for authoritative guidance that recognizes the reality that there are young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT+) students in our schools to whom we have a duty of care.

While many such students are thriving in Jewish schools, there are many others who endure deep unhappiness and distress due to the mistreatment and hurt they experience. Young LGBT+ people are particularly vulnerable to bullying and harm, as are children of LGBT+ parents.

It is of great importance that all members of staff should have the knowledge, skills and confidence to address the needs of these pupils and their families, providing support and guidance in a Torah framework.

To our great regret, without appropriate measures in place, harm has too often been caused in our schools and this is a problem that persists today. Orthodox schools have understandably found it difficult to engage with LGBT+ issues.

Headteachers, teachers, lay leaders and rabbis feel an urgent responsibility to put in place effective measures to prevent the harmful effects of bullying, name-calling and insensitivity.

There is also a need to provide appropriate pastoral support to those who seek it, all within the parameters of Halakhah (Jewish law), our Jewish values and ethos and current regulatory requirements.

With this in mind, I consider it a chiyyuv (obligation) to provide appropriate direction to our schools and to ensure that rabbis and other suitable members of staff are on hand to provide support and guidance to our students.

As challenging as the task might be, and it is exceptionally challenging, I believe that failure to address it at all amounts to an abrogation of our responsibility to the Almighty and to our children.

We are, of course, aware of the Torah’s prohibitions here, including Leviticus 18:22, but when homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying is carried out with “justifications” from Jewish texts, a major chillul Hashem (desecration of God’s name) is caused.

“Do not stand idly by your fellow’s blood.” Leviticus 19:16

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 73a), explains that this verse teaches us that if one sees a person in a life-threatening situation, one has a chiyyuv, an obligation, to do something in order to save them. Note that the Torah does not merely consider acting in such a case to be commendable or ideal—it is an absolute obligation.

Any person who doubts there are young LGBT+ people in our schools who have been left feeling so isolated that their very lives are in danger, has simply failed to grasp the reality confronting some of our students. Research by Stonewall indicates that 45% of transgender young people have attempted to take their own life and 22% of lesbian, gay and bisexual pupils have done the same.

Of course, not all LGBT+ students will feel so maligned or suffer intolerably at the hands of bullies, but it is clear that many do. The evidence is that distress and harm would be reduced if communities and schools were more understanding of the needs and life experiences of LGBT+ young people.

There are many Jewish values, expressed through good middot (character traits), which apply equally to our conduct regarding each and every one of us, such as ahavat Yisrael (love of a fellow-Jew), the pintele yid (the spark of holiness in all of us) and the tzelem Elokim: the image of God in which we are all created. No one should be hurt by breaches in shmirat halashon (careless speech) or excluded through lack of kevod habriyot (respect for other people).

These are all concepts that can be promoted as part of a wider culture of care for every individual in our schools. We can foster a joined-up approach where kodesh teachers, rabbis and rebbetzins work together with other departments to deliver a sensitive, balanced approach to those who are discovering their identity.

All young people, regardless of sexuality or gender, should know that if they approach their rabbi, rebbetzin or Jewish studies teacher, they will find a listening ear, understanding and pastoral support within a Torah framework.

“You shall not wrong [tonu] one another and you shall fear your God, for I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 25:17

The Mishnah explains that just as there is a concept of ona’ah, wronging another, in our business practices, so too there is a concept of ona’ah with our words.

Emerging from this, if one knows that a particular subject or form of words is likely to cause pain to another but chooses to go ahead and use those words nonetheless, one is guilty of ona’at devarim.

The Sefer Hachinuch (the 13th century Book of Education) characterizes the prohibition as follows: “Do not say hurtful or painful words to another, against which they cannot stand.” None of our pupils should have to face such unbearable treatment. Today, we refer to this behavior as bullying and it is completely forbidden.

It is also forbidden to inadvertently cause people pain, even where the intention was to be constructive. The Talmud gives an example from a different context: when speaking to someone who is experiencing personal grief, one may not say to them, “If you had only been a better person spiritually, perhaps this suffering may not have befallen you.”

This example makes it clear that even with the best of intentions, one can inadvertently cause great pain. Whether as a result of insensitivity or ignorance, this is still ona’at devarim.

This lesson is particularly instructive in the context of the way that teachers regard LGBT+ students. A teacher might believe that they are addressing students with all due sensitivity, but without recognizing LGBT+ issues and the life experiences of a young LGBT+ person growing up in the Jewish community, it is possible—and indeed likely—that they will cause physical and spiritual harm, potentially driving young people away from Judaism.

Thus, it is crucially important for students and staff alike to be fully aware of the impact of their words and actions on others. This can be suitably addressed with proper leadership, with clear policies in place and with appropriate training and support for staff.

“Love your fellow as yourself.” Leviticus 19:18

The famous teaching of Hillel, based on this commandment, “Do not do to others that which you would not wish them to do to you,” highlights the critical importance of empathy in Jewish tradition and that sensitivity to the feelings of everyone, including LGBT+ people, is a core element of our Torah way of life.

Young LGBT+ people in the Jewish community often express feelings of deep isolation, loneliness and a sense that they can never be themselves. Many are living with the fear that if they share their struggles with anyone, they will be expelled, ridiculed and even rejected by family and friends. They may even be struggling with a loss of emunah (faith, trust in God) and the fear of losing their place of acceptance and belonging in the Jewish community.

I hope that this document will set a precedent for genuine respect, borne out of love for all people across the Jewish world and mindful of the fact that every person is created betzelem Elokim, in the image of God.

This has been adapted from The Wellbeing of LGBT+ Pupils: A Guide for Orthodox Jewish Schools. The full guide is available from http://www.chiefrabbi.org/lgbtwelfare.

 

Author
Britain’s Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis
Issue
In These Times
Knowledge Topics
Teaching and Learning, Governance