Reimagining the Derech for the Next Generation: In Response to Rabbi Noson Shmuel Leiter

By: Shifra Isaacs  |  January 19, 2021

By Shifra Isaacs

The following is a response to a letter by Rabbi Noson Shmuel Leiter warning against government bills which encourage the acceptance and inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in schools. A few days after this response was written, the Jewish Link removed Rabbi Leiter’s article from their website.

 The gradual acceptance of LGBTQ+ individuals in Western society has presented an unforeseen challenge to traditional Orthodox Judaism. In some Orthodox communities, young adults are taught to view homosexuality not as a sexual orientation, but instead as a form of evil inclination that channels physicality toward sin. In this view, homosexuality is simply a difficult test administered by God; Jews must either pass by conquering their physical desires or fail and suffer the spiritual consequences. This view of sins is common in the Jewish tradition; idolatry and heterosexual adultery are framed similarly. However, this perspective is toxic for young adults growing up in the frum (religious Jewish) world today.

Our culture is sexually repressive, which is understandable considering that Torah frames sexual contact as moral only within the confines of an acceptable Jewish marriage. However, this repression contributes to some unhealthy outlets in our culture. The repression of LGBTQ+ identities can lead to depression, self-hatred, and even self-harm and suicide. This repression becomes apparent in our early teens. Adolescence is the time when some people begin to question their sexuality. Although this process is always complex, the difficulty is exacerbated by the Jewish laws of shomer negiah (refraining from physical touch between people of different genders). Many high school students who come from Orthodox homes sneak out to explore their sexuality with members of the opposite sex.

For adolescents in the LGBTQ+ community, this process of questioning sexuality becomes even more confusing. As a queer Jewish woman who attended a right-leaning modern Orthodox yeshiva high school, I can speak to this point from personal experience. In my school, which was not as overtly homophobic as a Bais Yaakov (religiously right-wing school for girls) or similar environment, we were constantly told both explicitly and implicitly that homosexuality and gay thoughts are abominable and pitiful. 

The Yeshiva system believes that single-gender schools solve the problem of premarital sexual contact. This perspective completely ignores LGBTQ+ people, and it actually makes Jewish school even more difficult for closeted gay high school students. Experiencing attraction to the same gender can feel oppressive in a single-gender school.

My teachers constantly talked about how “the gays” were inevitably going to hell, or how sorry they felt for families whom God “tested” by giving them LGBTQ+ children. These teachers never imagined that the very children they pitied were sitting in the room holding back tears and internalizing an insurmountable force of homophobia that would haunt them for years to come.

My opening questions to Rabbi Leiter are the following: What is your goal when you push for the exclusion of LGBTQ+ people in yeshiva and other Jewish environments? Why do you assume that LGBTQ+ people are not sitting in your shiur (Torah lecture) as you denigrate them? Do you think that these attitudes provide LGBTQ+ Jewish people any incentive to stay in such an oppressive culture?

Is it not clear that you are pushing potential Torah-observant Jews far, far away to a point where they cannot bring themselves to listen to a word you say? Do you understand that, once they have been conditioned to bury their feelings and swallow their “abominable tendencies,” they will stiffen up the moment you enter a room because they are so terrified of being seen? Do you not see that we, your students, your sons, your daughters, your fellow Jews, your future, are the ones you are terrified of? You fear your own children, even though we’ve been here all along.

To spread Rabbi Leiter’s anti-LGBTQ+ messages is to push the Orthodox Jewish community several steps backward. First, proponents of Rabbi Leiter’s message must understand that LGBTQ+ youth are not some ambiguous other who exist outside Jewish circles. You probably know at least a few people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or otherwise queer. For many LGBTQ+ people in the Orthodox community, it is never safe to come out. They risk potentially going to hell, being disowned by their families, or worst of all, becoming the subject of gossip at simchas (celebrations) for the next decade or so.

All joking aside, the rejection of LGBTQ+ youth is correlated with higher suicide rates among other serious mental and physical health issues. Studies show that 68% of teens experience rejection after coming out to their family. LGBTQ+ youth from highly rejecting families are over 8 times as likely to attempt suicide compared with LGBTQ+ youth from accepting families. Additionally, LGBTQ+ youth from highly rejecting families were over three times as likely to use illegal drugs, and over three times as likely to be at high risk for HIV and other STDs compared with LGBTQ+ youth from accepting families

Rejection hurts, especially when it’s perpetuated by your own community for reasons you cannot control. Rabbi Leiter may think he is fighting to uphold morality and prevent Jewish children (who are all assumed to be heterosexual) from being corrupted. This is a noble goal in theory, and I do on some level appreciate his sincere attempt to protect me because it shows that he cares about the spiritual well-being of Jewish youth. However, what he is actually doing is perpetuating the cycle of internalized homophobia, increasing the probability of suicides in the LGBTQ+ Jewish community, and failing to acknowledge that he is fighting against his own people.

Despite the all-too-common homophobic rhetoric in Orthodox spaces, things are still improving for Jewish LGBTQ+ youth. In the summer of 2019, I marched with Jewish Queer Youth (JQY) and Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST) at World Pride in New York City. It was one of the most empowering days of my life; I saw Jews from all denominations accepting and supporting one another. It was also one of the few times I felt seen and safe in a Jewish space.

More recently, on December 20, YU hosted a Zoom panel called “Being LGBTQ+ in an Orthodox World.” Over 700 people participated in the call, where current students and alumni told their stories of coming to terms with their LGBTQ+ identities and how they navigate Jewish spaces. Some remained Orthodox while some became non-observant. This call represented progress for me in the modern Orthodox world. Despite all the disasters of 2020, this moment was a beacon of hope that showed me positive steps are still possible.

My final question for Rabbi Leiter is this: Do you want the next generation of Jewish LGBTQ+ youth to stay in the community and maintain Torah values? If the answer is yes, please embrace them instead of pushing them away. Please stop telling them they are irreparable problems and abominations. Please invoke “V’Ahaveta L’Reiecha K’mocha,” the value of treating a neighbor as kindly as you would like to be treated, and show them the respect, compassion, and kindness you would give to anyone else without a second thought.

There are horrible people in this world who steal, rape, and murder, and yet the LGBTQ+ community are often considered the worst kind of sinners. The only crime these LGBTQ+ youth have committed is love. If you want Mashiach (Messiah) to come sooner rather than later, stop combating love with hatred.