Rabbi Helfgot’s Statement of Principles urges sensitivity toward gays in Orthodoxy
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Rabbi Helfgot’s Statement of Principles urges sensitivity toward gays in Orthodoxy

Orthodox rabbi aims for movement consensus

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Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot hopes his Statement of Principles will spur discussion on the issue of homosexuality.

During his more than 20 years as an Orthodox Jewish educator, Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot has heard many stories from friends and colleagues about the treatment of homosexuals in his movement.

“I haven’t done a systematic study, but I know anecdotally that there are some extremely sensitive rabbis,” he told The Jewish Standard.

But sometimes, he added, homosexual congregants or students “can’t be honest with their rabbis because of the nature of their orientation. They would have no place in their synagogue or school, or they hear hurtful things from the pulpit and see no future in the movement.”

To help spur discussion on this issue, Helfgot – chair of the Bible and Jewish Thought departments at New York’s Yeshiva Chovevei Torah – has penned a document designed to “articulate principles for discussion and thought.”

Entitled “Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community,” the piece, revised with the help of Rabbis Aryeh Klapper and Yitzchak Blau, has as of Wednesday garnered the signatures of more than 140 Orthodox rabbis, educators, and mental health professionals.

Helfgot said he is pleased with reaction to the statement, posted on the Internet last week, which attempts to “express an authentic, honest, balanced, reasoned, nuanced, thoughtful approach to a sensitive issue, balancing Torat Emet [stressing Jewish law] with Torat Chesed [emphasizing compassion].”

“We wanted it to be as inclusive as possible and produce a consensus of the broad swath of the Orthodox movement,” said Helfgot, former director of the Judaic studies curriculum at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck.

While reactions have been mixed, he said – with some people signing the document immediately, others noting that they would think about it, and still others holding that the issue should not be publicly discussed – “most of those who have spoken about it have been very positive.”

Helfgot said the initiative had long- and short-term catalysts.

“For years we have spoken with other friends in the rabbinate and in Jewish education about the growing recognition that they have had students who later came out as homosexuals,” he said. “We also have had friends, here and there, who came out and know parents who struggle with this with their children.”

“We kicked around the reality of this and the question of what the community, synagogue, and schools should be doing to affirm what we believe in terms of Jewish law [while also asking] ‘Is there a place for these people to be within our community? Is it simply either/or?'”

The rabbi cited a 2001 book by Rabbi Chaim Rapoport, “Judaism and Homosexuality,” which, he said, articulated many of the themes evident in the statement.

“For the first time,” he said, the book “really articulated a balanced, reasoned approach, affirming basic principles but extending a sensitive, compassionate hand for everyone to feel part of the community.”

The book, a panel last year at Yeshiva University where gay students and alumni spoke about their experiences, and “tremendous discussion in the media and blogosphere” prompted Helfgot to write his own document.

“It was time to put into writing not just a reaction but some thoughtful ‘kicking around’ of ideas to articulate some of the principles many of us were coming to formulate,” he said.

After writing the first draft of the piece, he sent it to 300 to 400 Orthodox rabbis, educators, and professionals, asking for – and receiving – a lot of feedback.

Using that input, and working with Blau and Klapper, he produced a revised version, “trying to reach as many as possible that we knew were thoughtful, responsible, and major players in the rabbinic world. Many commented even if they didn’t sign it.”

The final version is posted on the Internet and remains open for signatures.

According to Helfgot, the signers are “a very broad mix of people – young, middle-aged, and some senior rabbis who have been in the field for more than 30 years.”

Helfgot said while signature-gathering is “still in process,” it is clear that signatories “are not affiliated with any one specific institution or organization. We want this to be an independent effort across the Orthodox world,” he said.

Asked about the absence on the signature list of some leading Orthodox rabbis, Helfgot said, “I really don’t know who will sign on and why. I have no idea whether the absence of any one [person] will make a difference.” He pointed out, as well, that “some are still thinking about it.”

The rabbi said he hopes the statement “will spur some good and important conversations within schools and shul communities about this sensitive and difficult issue. Hopefully, people will decide whether they want to adopt the guidelines.”

He anticipates that reactions will vary in each community as congregants decide “whether they can live with this.”

He also hopes some national rabbinic and lay organizations will feel compelled to study the document, “whether they adopt it or not.”

“The signators have influence in dozens of schools and synagogues,” he said. “We hope this will have a ripple effect.”

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, first vice president of the Orthodox movement’s Rabbinical Council of America and religious leader of Cong. Ahavath Torah in Englewood, called the document “an appropriate statement, otherwise I wouldn’t have signed it.” He noted that “there have been numerous situations where homosexuals have married people of the opposite gender in an attempt to live a life story that they simply could not. This has the potential to create terrible things for those in the relationship.”

“It’s difficult to know what statements like this achieve,” he added, “but I hope it will make clear the boundaries of Jewish law while preaching understanding. It’s unfortunate that we have to preach kindness to people.”

Rebecca Boroson contributed to this report.

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