The Gemara in Yevamos 79b states that three traits are emblematic of a Jew, and that if any of those three traits are missing, we should question the person’s heritage: That they be compassionate, humility/contrition, and a willingness to do kindness to others. And yet, seemingly in direct contravention of this gemara, Avraham Gordimer, on December 20th, penned an article in the Jewish Press calling on the Orthodox community to withhold our empathy for our fellow Jew.
In his article titled ‘Should Leah Forster be Allowed to Perform?‘ Gordimer questions whether or not it is appropriate not only for a lesbian woman to hold a comedy event at a kosher establishment, but whether or not it is appropriate for Orthodox Jews to attend. Despite acknowledging that Leah “does not publicly discuss her sexual orientation,” and that the “content of her routine is, as she claims, free of anything controversial[,]” he nonetheless proceeds to warn us that attending such a performance may be inappropriate since “when [people] laugh along with a performer and enjoy his or her presentation, they bond and start to grow comfortable with what he or she represents. Concomitantly, they start becoming uncomfortable with anything the Torah says that may paint this person in a negative light.”
He goes on to warn that “Attitudes in America toward homosexuality and non-marital intimate relationships have undergone a sea change in the last few decades[,]” and that “Even if viewers claim to hold by their moral opposition to homosexuality[,]” exposure to LGBT performers and the humanity they portray “elicited sympathy for them and their way of life and thus helped break down the walls of Biblical morality.”
In other words, despite the fact that the performances have nothing to do with the performer’s LGBT identity, and has nothing to do with promoting LGBT identities and orientations, we should nonetheless refuse to attend their performances since interacting with their humanity may cause us to rethink the bigoted positions our community has spent so much time carefully inculcating into its members.
Never mind the fact that while the Orthodox community continues to pretend otherwise, there exists no issur in the Torah against having an LGBT orientation or identity, certainly not anything that dictates what sex or gender we should find attractive. More to the point this is another illustration of the fact that this isn’t really about whether or not we’re worried about eroding Torah values in the community as much as it’s about specifically discriminating against LGBT people.
I’ve never once seen an article from Gordimer similarly calling for the boycott of non-religious, Shabbos-violating Jewish performers. I’ve never heard of someone being thrown out of a shul for being an adulterer, and if it happens it certainly isn’t as commonplace as LGBT people being excluded from shuls for the mere fact of their identities or orientations. We as a community, in the interest of maintaining a connection, however tenuous, to all Jews, regardless of their level of observance, have always welcomed people who haven’t been perfectly observant, even of halachos whose violation carries the death penalty. And yet, for some reason, when it comes to LGBT people we decide to draw a line and rigidly defend it.
That’s not new. What is new is the specific expression of this calculus: God forbid we engage with LGBT people in a way that showcases their humanity, that enables us to empathize with them as people instead of just viewing them as some foreign, sinful threat, lest we find ourselves so compelled by how like us they that we abandon our bigotry. Imagine if kiruv rabbs adopted with shabbos-violators, or people who don’t keep kosher? I’m willing to bet that membership numbers at Aish and Ohr Somayach would rapidly dwindle.
The call to empathy and compassion, to see past externalities to the humanity in each and every person is what makes us Jews. Certainly not misguided calls to the contrary based on a standard we don’t apply to any other group.