Editor’s note: This story mentions suicide. If you or someone you know is in crisis or needs support, call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the U.S. at 988.
While most of the Jewish community is celebrating Pride month, the mainstream Orthodox community’s unsupportive attitude toward LGBTQ+ Jews reminds us that there is still much work to be done.
As a straight, cis, Orthodox rabbi, my involvement in the movement may seem complicated. The Torah and rabbinic tradition clearly have much to say about homosexuality, none of it good. But my primary responsibility as a rabbi is to protect the dignity of every human being, regardless of their sexual orientation. Today, that includes standing up for LGBTQ+ Jews.
Challenges to human dignity
We’re living in an extremely challenging time for the Orthodox LGBTQ+ Jewish community. Yeshiva University refused to recognize its LGBTQ+ Alliance as an official student organization last year, kicking off a protracted, highly public and painful legal battle. A trans woman was expelled from her YU-affiliated Manhattan synagogue earlier this year. A gay man in Florida was pushed out of the only Orthodox shul within walking distance of his home. And most recently, Herschel Siegel, a beloved member of the LGBTQ+ Orthodox community, died by suicide in early May.
These events tell a story of a community that is feeling isolated, unwelcomed and afraid. The struggles and pain that Orthodox LGBTQ+ Jews experience is real and dangerous.
Because of the stigma surrounding homosexuality in traditional Jewish spaces, many LGBTQ+ Jews also face major issues around mental health. Many Jews share with me, after coming into my shul, that it was their first time in a synagogue since they came out — and how healing it is to enter a Jewish space and be accepted for who they are.
According to a 2023 survey by the Trevor Project, a nonprofit focused on suicide prevention in the LGBTQ+ community, 41% of LGBTQ+ young people seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year. And 56% of LGBTQ+ young people who wanted mental health care in the past year were not able to get it. But truly no one knows how many people are suffering in silence and how many take their own lives because of it.
I imagine these harrowing statistics would decline if people felt comfortable coming out to their parents or family, who can better assist them in getting the necessary help.
Our religious responsibility
Rabbis and communal leaders in particular have a sacred responsibility to provide support to the most vulnerable members in a community. When the great Talmudic scholar Rabbi Hayyim Soloveitchik was asked what a rabbi’s function is, he replied: “To redress the grievances of those who are abandoned and alone.”
Without a dramatic shift around LGBTQ+ inclusion in the Orthodox community, lives are at stake. For a community that prides itself on a strict adherence to Jewish law in the modern world, we should know that pikuach nefesh (protecting a life) is among the Torah’s most sacred values. Embracing LGBTQ+ Jews is not about advancing some liberal or woke agenda, but about upholding halacha in an increasingly complex world.
I’m certain many detractors will claim my opinion is outside the bounds of Orthodoxy and challenge my own Orthodoxy. But to those folks, I ask: Can you show me a case where halacha rules leniently on issues surrounding pikuach nefesh and kavod habriyot (human dignity)? Can you show me where in the halachic responsa it says that a trans or gay individual is not allowed to be a member of an Orthodox synagogue?
Jewish tradition considers dishonoring the dignity of a fellow human being an affront against God. Affirming the godliness in every human being is not optional — it’s obligatory. A Jew’s foremost task is to express their fullest and most authentic self, and no one has the right to hinder or block that expression. It’s incumbent upon us to create safe spaces that allow LGBTQ+ Jews to nurture their uniqueness.
The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism, teaches that every single Jew has their own letter in the Torah, regardless of their deeds. Only that specific person has the ability to illuminate that letter with their infinite uniqueness, holiness and godliness. Just as a Torah scroll is invalid if just one letter is missing, when just one person is missing or excluded, our entire Torah is left diminished and incomplete.
In the Talmud, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria was appointed spiritual leader as a replacement for Rabban Gamliel, who only allowed pious individuals, “whose insides were like their outsides,” to enter the study hall. The first act of Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria as his replacement was to open up the beit midrash to all.
So many wanted to learn that they had to bring in 400 — and some say 700 — extra benches to accommodate all the men who wanted to learn. With so many voices added to the learning of Torah, “there was no matter that was left hanging in the beit midrash.”
Full inclusion of the LGBTQ+ community is not an act of kindness, but a religious imperative. And when every Jew feels included and welcomed, the rest of the community stands to benefit as well.
Queer Jews should not be forced to check their identity at the doors of synagogues. Being closed out from Orthodox life will not stop someone from being gay, but it very likely will stop them from wanting to be Jewish or living an observant life.
It gives me great joy that my synagogue, the Prospect Heights Shul, will be hosting a Pride Kiddush as a way of honoring our LGBTQ+ community this June. We have already welcomed LGBTQ+ individuals into leadership positions, because our community has decided that being “tolerant” is totally insufficient — we must celebrate all Jews.
While this level of welcoming for LGBTQ+ Jews may make us a unicorn within Orthodoxy, the tides are certainly turning. I can only hope that other Orthodox institutions recognize the stakes before it’s too late. Too many lives have been lost, and countless Jews will continue to suffer, until we make a dramatic shift to embrace our LGBTQ+ community members.
I still have much to figure out in terms of upholding both Jewish law and the spirit of radical openness toward the LGBTQ+ community. But my incomplete understanding can’t prevent me from loving my fellow Jews wholeheartedly.
If compassion is no longer a chief Torah value, we have drifted terribly far off course. No individual can be an abomination. The shame is on us all for allowing discriminatory and hurtful policies to remain in place. PJC
Rabbi Jonathan Leener is the head rabbi of the Prospect Heights Shul in Brooklyn.