Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Orthodoxy, the UK and LGBT Issues

Image form BBC News
There has been a lot of angst among Orthodox Jews in the UK about the recent intrusion of government into religious schools. Especially by the right wing as it pertains to LGBT issues. The worry is that UK education officials are trying to uproot the Torah’s very clear standards about those issues.

I can understand why they feel that way. The current zeitgeist on these issues worldwide has seen a sea change in the public attitude about them. What was once considered immoral and abnormal behavior  a few short decades ago, is now considered a normal alternative lifestyle. To be respected in the same way as traditionally moral behavior.
To that extent, the UK has issued requirements about how all private schools – obviously including Orthodox schools – should teach those values. Are they right to worry?

Perhaps. It is undemocratic to demand that a private religious school reject its religious teachings because the government now says so. The current guidelines seem to come dangerously close doing that. But the key word there is ‘close’. I do not believe they are there yet. And I’m not sure they ever will be. 

In a recent article David Israel writes that the Charedi community is so upset by new guidelines that they are threatening to leave the country:  
Shraga Stern, a Haredi parent living in the UK, sent a letter to the secretary of state for education, Damian Hinds, saying: “Many members of the community would choose to leave the United Kingdom for a more hospitable jurisdiction rather than comply with such an obligation to mention homosexuality or gender reassignment in a positive context at school,” the Guardian reported Sunday.
Stern told the Observer: “We teach our children, at home and in school, to respect every person, but we will not teach them about LGBT issues.” 

I hear his complaint. But I’m not sure his complaint is warranted. Because the UK Department for Education guidelines does not really require private religious schools to teach anything that violates their beliefs. If one examines them carefully, they will see that it is all about respecting others that different than you. Which for me is a given. 

As I have said many times, respecting people for who they are is a lot different than respecting people for what they do. In the first instance it is a Halachic requirement to treat every human being as created equal in the eyes of God. No matter what their sexual inclinations are. It is the second instance that we have a problem. We cannot honor behavior that is explicitly forbidden by the religious teachings in the Torah. 

But the rules as stated do not seem to go that far: 
(T)he prescribed standard will not be met, according to the guide, “if, for example, the PSHE (Personal, Social and Health Education) curriculum:
1. encourages pupils to see those of particular races or religions as being inferior in any way;
2. suggests to male pupils that women and girls should be treated with less respect than males or that a woman’s role is subservient to that of a man – or vice versa.
3. suggests that same-sex marriages or civil partnerships should not be recognized as being lawful unions under civil law.” 
Orthodox Jewish schools should not teach that people are inferior based oh their race of religion. Only behavior can be seen as inferior.

Orthodox Jewish schools should not teach that women and girls should be treated with less respect than males or that a woman’s role is subservient to that of a man – or vice versa;

Orthodox Jewish schools should not teach that same-sex marriages or civil partnerships should not be recognized as being lawful unions under civil law.”

The fact that Judaism considers same sex marriage a serious violation of Halacha does not mean that the law of the land should be taught as unlawful. That - in and of itself - is an oxymoron. The law of the land cannot be unlawful. Even if we wish it were not so and believe as I do. (I personally believe that government should not sanction same sex marriage - for reasons that are beyond the scope of this post.) However, the law is what it is. What they should teach is that despite the fact that same sex marriages is the law of the land, they are forbidden by Jewish law.

So what's the big deal? The Charedi world does not want to teach anything at all about the LGBT community. The very subject of sex is so taboo that certain portions of the Torah are not taught at all in the elementary grades - skipped entirely because of that! What the UK therefore requires is considered anathema No matter how it is approached.  

I get that. But I also understand why a society that considers such behavior to be normal wants its people to treat people that engage in that behavior fairly. Especially in a world where people are open about their own sexuality will cause innocent people to get hurt. Which has happened far too often.

I therefore agree with UK Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis who came out with his own guidelines for Orthodox Jewish schools on this issue. Guidelines that I have discussed in the past.  Guidelines that are acceptable to the LGBT community and therefore most likely acceptable to UK education officials. I believe that if all schools follow his guidelines they will be left alone. 

Quite aware of the biblical prohibition spelled out in Vayikra (18:22), Rabbi Mirvis nevertheless said the following:
(W)hen homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying is carried out with "justifications" from Jewish texts a "major desecration of God's name" is caused. And he says that the most important part of Jewish law, also set out in Leviticus, is to "love your neighbour as yourself".
The guidelines include:
zero tolerance of bullying
better protection of LGBT pupils against bullying and abuse
avoiding homophobic words and language
recognising the issues and experiences of LGBT pupils
avoiding labels and allowing pupils to determine their own sexuality
better support when pupils first come out
I believe these guidelines are eminently fair and true to both Halacha and Kavod HaBriyos – respecting the dignity of every human being.  For me that result is well worth sacrificing a bit of sensitivity about discussing these subjects with our young – if done at an appropriate age with proper attention to Halacha.

If Charedi Jews want to leave the UK over this, they certainly have that right. But they do not in my view have any Halachic imperative to do so. And at the end of the day their children will be better off  knowing how to love their neighbor in practice. Not just in theory.