Our obli­ga­tion to­wards LGBT+ peo­ple

Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis sets out the To­rah de­mands for sen­si­tiv­ity and un­der­stand­ing in an ex­tract from his new guid­ance for schools

The Jewish Chronicle - - NEWS -

dif­fer­ent can be­gin to ques­tion their place within the school com­mu­nity and their faith com­mu­nity.”

It also de­tails the ex­pe­ri­ence of LGBT+ Jews. One, Shulli, who came out only af­ter she had left school, re­called how she had thought “by fit­ting in and act­ing straight, then I would even­tu­ally be­come straight … I knew I had to men­tion boy crushes, I had to get rid of my swag­ger­ing walk, I had to fre­quently use ho­mo­pho­bic slurs, and I couldn’t wear my foot­ball shirt on Is­rael tour.”

An­other ex-Jewish day school pupil said a teacher “not know­ing I am gay, made a throw­away re­mark that stayed with me and hurt a lot. He said, ‘I’d sit shivah for my son if he came out’.”

But also records some pos­i­tive prac­tice. One par­ent with chil­dren at an Ortho­dox school said: “Even though peo­ple there know I’m les­bian, I’ve never ex­pe­ri­enced any­thing but re­spect from all the staff at the school.”

A for­mer pupil said it had meant a lot when a rabbi said that he was there just to lis­ten be­cause he didn’t have all the an­swers. “It felt like he showed a lot of hu­mil­ity, was be­ing hon­est and cared about me. There are a lot of knotty ar­eas and some­times just ac­knowl­edg­ing that and show­ing that you are aware of the im­pact makes a huge dif­fer­ence.”

The full guide is avail­able from www.chiefrabbi. org/lgbtwel­fare

Even with the best of in­ten­tions, one can in­ad­ver­tently cause great pain’

Apri­or­ity 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 which recog­nises 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 ha­lachah (Jewish law), our Jewish val­ues and ethos and cur­rent reg­u­la­tory re­quire­ments.

With this in mind, I con­sider it a chiyuv (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 Chilul 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 chiyuv, 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 per cent of trans­gen­der young peo­ple have at­tempted to take their own life and 22 per cent 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 kavod 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, reb­bet­zen 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’a, wrong­ing an­other, in our busi­ness prac­tices, so too there is a con­cept of ona’a 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) char­ac­terises 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 be­hav­iour 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 recog­nis­ing 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.



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