March 2, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

There are times that we as a community need to deal with those who do not follow halacha but still wish to be part of our community, e.g., taking part in synagogue services. In this, there is an important balance to be struck. On the one hand, we do not want to exclude people who might, as a consequence of their participation, be inspired to be better. Furthermore, we know that none of us is perfect, either—at the very least, I doubt anyone can claim to always daven with proper kavanah. On the other hand, kevod shamayim necessitates that we not appear to be legitimizing any contrary-to-halacha behavior or ideas.

Alan Levin, in his recent letter “Orthodox Judaism and the LGBTQ Community” (October 21, 2021), suggests a very worthwhile solution: The people in question should be welcomed into the shul (as, indeed, he notes we are accustomed to doing with regard to less politicized violations), but in a way that implicitly delegitimizes any violation of halacha; in the example in his letter, this means accepting people who are in relationships prohibited by halacha, but as individuals and not as couples.

This approach seems a very promising one, as it allows us to stand up for halacha without rejecting or disrespecting individuals. Nevertheless, Richard Langer, in his letter “LGBTQ+ Engagement: Continuing the Conversation” (October 28), points out that even such a limited acceptance may be misinterpreted as a message that such people are not welcome in shul.

Discarding the limitation, as Langer suggests, is not an option; it is absolutely necessary that we as a community send the message that the relationship in question is not acceptable (and certainly not, as I have recently seen claimed, “demonstrably wonderful”), but we do not want to also send the message that the individuals in question are unwelcome.

Thus, I would like to propose that Levin’s proposal be modified by extending the same principle to other cases, and especially those in which large segments of the community are less than perfect. This will increase its positive benefit of standing up for kevod shamayim, while making it clear that this is not a policy specifically targeting LGBTQ+ individuals and thus avoiding the concern that Mr. Langer raises. Some examples of such further extension follow:

—The example Levin gives in his letter of another aspect of halacha that does not inhibit shul membership is that of Shabbat observance. Thus, this approach would suggest that Shabbat-violating individuals should still be welcomed into shul, but not permitted to park in the shul parking lot on Shabbat. (Whether to require entirely that they not drive to shul, even in a way that does not involve any permission from the shul, is a matter the rav, or perhaps the community rabbanim in general, must decide.)

—As noted above, we all fail (at least at times) to daven with proper kavanah, and no one should be excluded from shul for this violation. However, it should also be made clear that nobody has any right to expect the shul to accommodate this lack of kavanah; in particular, the official speed of the minyan should be determined based on the needs and interests of the congregants who successfully daven with kavanah.

—Another common failure, at least in some shuls, is to show proper respect for davening by not conversing with one’s friends during the service. Again, those who fail in this regard should not lose their membership or be expelled from any service, but the shul should set its policies regarding talking and enforcement without consideration for the desire to engage in such talking, and with consideration for those whose davening may be disturbed by it.

As one final note: While I agree overall with Levin’s letter, toward the end he distinguishes between intermarriage in which the couple has not committed to a Jewish identity, and LGBTQ people where he says there is no diminution of Jewish identity. I suspect that things are often more complicated, and each case (on both sides, at least assuming that any children are being raised 100% Jewish) must be addressed individually—to determine whether it is a case of someone who still holds to their identity as a Jew who is required to follow halacha, and merely has failed their trial in this regard; or whether they have rejected or redefined their Jewish identity, thus leading to the long-term watering down and disappearance of such identity.

Yitzchak Kornbluth
Teaneck
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