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Comment: Reflections on Yom Kippur and homosexuality within Judaism

Benjamin Cohen September 29, 2009
bookmarking iconBookmark Article founder Benjamin Cohen reflects back on yesterday’s Jewish festival of Yom Kippur and what it means for an openly gay Jew.

Two years ago, I wrote about my experiences in Synagogue over Yom Kippur, the day of atonement when according to Judaism, all men and women are judged and God decides whether to write them into the book of life for the following year, who will die at his allotted time and who before. It’s also the day that God decides who will have a good year and who will have a year of struggle. As I left yesterday’s service, I felt that it would be apt to update the original article.

As I sat in Synagogue yesterday during Yom Kippur I once again regretted that I’m still an attendee of the United Synagogue.

The United Synagogue is Britain’s largest Jewish community and represents what it defines as “modern Orthodoxy”, a centre ground which aims to embrace modernity with a traditional slant.

Despite their orthodox claims, the majority of those who belong to the movement are certainly not orthodox in the strictest sense of the word. They may attend synagogue regularly but they’ll often watch television and drive on Shabbat (the Sabbath) something which is banned.

But in terms of morality, particularly sexual morality, those Rabbis in charge of the synagogues have failed to recognise the strides forward both society as a whole and the Jewish community in particular have made in the past few years.

Many of my parent’s friends are clearly subscribers to the modern orthodox doctrines; strictly keeping Kosher, refraining from all forms of work on the Sabbath (even switching a light on) and attend Synagogue at least once a week. But all have accepted my sexuality, one even saying that I was “silly to have thought they would have behaved otherwise.”

Yet as I sat in the Yom Kippur service yesterday afternoon, I was reminded that the movement still has a long way to go. The Torah reading for the afternoon was from Leviticus, particularly those verses concerning forbidden sexual relationships.

Whilst most right minded people will believe that a man should not sleep with his mother or that a woman should not have sex with an animal, the ban on homosexuality; “you shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” appears somewhat out of place.

The above verse is obviously a translation into English from ancient Hebrew. The literal translation of “V’et zachar lo tishkav mishk’vey eeshah toeyvah hee” is “and with a male you shall not lay lyings of a woman.” This is not quite the same thing.

Some commentaries understand this as a ban on men sleeping together in the bed of a woman, certainly no bad thing as it’s clearly poor etiquette, especially if it were done behind her back. Others understand this more as a ban on the pagan rituals of anal sex within religious pagan temple ceremonies.

But the United Synagogue seems to prefer the clearer translation, essentially a ban on gay sex. 2 years ago, I decided to leave the building as those verses were read, my own silent protest at firstly its inclusion in the service and the interpretations of the movement as a whole. This year I decided not to attend that service at all. But constantly throughout the rest of the day’s proceedings I found myself “confessing” for my “abominations”- perhaps a reference to the Torah’s description of a man lying with a men as with a woman as an “abomination,” something that carried the death penalty in biblical times.

Of course, I could choose to join the Liberal or Reform movements, both of whom have adapted their liturgy to remove condemnations of homosexuality. Indeed, Liberal Judaism has introduced a gay wedding ceremony and has many openly gay and lesbian Rabbis heading their communities.

But I do enjoy the services at the United Synagogue, sitting next to my father, grandfather, brother-in-law and seeing family and friends. I do however regret that it would seem highly inappropriate for my non-Jewish same sex partner to sit next to me.

I still do hope that by remaining within the movement, I like other LGBT Jews can act as an impetus for reform across the board, not just for LGBT rights but also to improve the role of women as leaders in our community. But I fear, as both the liberal/reform and ultra-orthodox communities within Britain increase in size, the United Synagogue may feel the need to lurch to the right rather than stake a claim in the centre ground embracing true equality regardless of sex or sexuality.

Benjamin Cohen is the founder of and is a correspondent for Channel4 News and the views expressed within this article remain his personal views and do not necessarily reflect the policies or editorial stance of either organisations.

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