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Comment: Time for Jewish leaders to show some pride

Benjamin Cohen July 8, 2010
bookmarking iconSAVE FOR LATER founder Benjamin Cohen explores issues of faith and homosexuality at Pride. This column was published in today’s Jewish News.

I’ve been to many LGBT Pride events before; last year I accompanied the-then prime minister’s wife Sarah Brown at London’s Pride march. This year, both in Tel Aviv and in London, the experience was different, I wasn’t just ‘coming out’ as LGBT, I was coming out as an LGBT Jew. This is the first time I’ve combined these two very important constituent parts of my personality and cultural identity.

In Tel Aviv, I marched with about 20 members of the Gay Jews in London group. We accompanied 100,000 fellow Jews from around the world.

It’s hard to describe how that felt. It was about walking with tens of thousands of people you have a real affinity with – not just your sexuality but also your religion. People who have suffered the same struggles of conscience and fear of rejection before making the brave decision of coming out. People like me who had to reconcile the conflicting pressures of both knowing you have a different sexual orientation while at the same time wanting to belong to a religion, which at least in the orthodox tradition rejects you.

At last Saturday’s Pride London celebrations, more than one hundred LGBT Jews took part in the march. It was the largest Jewish turnout ever seen at Pride and it reflects the growth of the three Jewish LGBT groups: Gay Jews in London, the Jewish Gay and Lesbian Group and Beit Klal Yisrael, a predominantly gay synagogue.

The Jews joined hundreds of other religious marchers, including Christians, Muslims and Hindus, on the march across the West End, culminating in a rally at Trafalgar Square. Some may wonder why anyone would march at a Pride event at all, especially given that in the most part we’re no longer marching to achieve particular human rights and it was for equal rights that the first gay Pride march took place in London nearly 40 years ago last weekend.

I don’t think that people really even march as a celebration of their own sexuality, I think they march because they have pride in the strength of their own character, that they’re honest about their own needs and desires, and in the case of religious groups, that they’re proud of the way that God made them.

At the march itself, it was the Jews, wearing cheeky t-shirts emblazoned with “Jewlicious – 100% Kosher”, that caused the largest impact . I spent a lot of the march at the front with the mayor, Boris Johnson, who was rather taken with the t-shirt and emphasised to me the importance of different faith groups wanting to be part of this large celebration of LGBT life.

Perhaps the popularity of the Jewish group with the million-strong crowd was because publicly, orthodox Jewish leaders say little about homosexuality while Reform and Liberal Rabbis embrace us, in marked contrast to Muslim, Anglican or Catholic leaders. Indeed, the only demonstration against Pride was from an evangelical Christian group warning that by holding events such as an LGBT pride march, London will soon follow the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. But I have to question how long it’s sustainable for the orthodox community to fudge the issue of homosexuality.

Ask any orthodox Rabbi for their position on homosexuality and they’ll respond along the lines of “hating the sin but loving the sinner.” It’s certainly nothing like the language of evangelical Christians or hardline Muslims but it’s still not very satisfactory. How on earth can you “love” someone who you believe is deliberately committing a grave sin?

On every Yom Kippur, included alongside incest and bestiality in the list of banned sexual relationships, we read from the Torah: “you shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” – an offence punishable with death. And every year we do that, we’re sowing into the minds of another generation of young people that being LGBT and Jewish will be a struggle. That passage used to make me believe I would be punished for something I couldn’t help and I’m not alone. Nearly all of my LGBT friends brought up in the orthodox tradition felt the same and that’s hardly going to fill anyone with pride.

Benjamin Cohen is a correspondent for Channel 4 News and the founder of

I should add for the avoidance of doubt, that my attachment to Judaism is more or less exclusively a cultural one. I studied theology at university and so consequently, I don’t really believe in God any more, certainly not the personal God of traditional Jewish thought. The laws and traditions of Judaism that I follow therefore are the ones that I actually agree with or that I have a cultural affinity with. I do them because I want to, not like a religious person who often does particular things because they are scared of some sort of divine retribution.

But even though I no longer believe, I don’t lose the right to want the religion to change, to adapt and respond to modernity. While you could pretty well argue I could jump ships to a Liberal or Reform synagogue, I don’t think I should have to (see my earlier column on this subject). I want the mainstream branch of Judaism to change so that the situation for young LGBT Jews changes. When you’re a kid, you don’t get to chose the synagogue you attend, your parents do, and it’s only through changing the attitudes of orthodox Jews that will enable a different approach to homosexuality appear. That’s why I wrote the column for the Jewish News aimed squarely at the orthodox community.

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