Convivium was a project of Cardus 2011‑2022, and is preserved here for archival purposes.
Gay Pride Meets Jewish OrthodoxyGay Pride Meets Jewish Orthodoxy

Gay Pride Meets Jewish Orthodoxy

As Ottawa heads into one of the last Pride weekends of the summer in Canada, Convivium publisher Peter Stockland interviews Daniel Jonas, an Israeli LGBT activist trying to balance contemporary interpretations of human rights and identity with his devout commitment to the timeless truths of Orthodox Judaism.

Peter Stockland
Daniel Jonas
12 minute read

Daniel Jonas is the chairperson of Havruta, a religious community that works for tolerance of LGBT people in Orthodox society in Israel. When he recently visited Ottawa and Montreal for meetings with local politicians, LGBT activists, and rabbis from a variety of Jewish traditions, including the Orthodox, I sat down with him to hear out what seems to me, as a Christian, the imponderable task of reconciling gay beliefs with the God of Abraham.

Jonas is a soft-spoken, highly articulate young Jerusalemite who showed no shyness about acknowledging the difficult edges of living out the Law as a gay Jew in Israel. I left our meeting secure in his sincerity (as has not always been the case with some North American LGBT activists) that his work for same-sex civil unions is not a mere stalking horse for irreparably altering Orthodox faith and tradition.

As Jonas said: “We hear more and more Orthodox rabbis saying they are willing to accept legal partnership, or something like it, recognized by the State. They’re not only willing to accept it. Some think it's important. But they won't ever dare to speak about having Jewish weddings. And that is a separation I can live with.”

His avowed pursuit of a generous pluralism makes him, I think, a voice of interest to Convivium readers. He expresses the complex balancing of civil freedom with religious obligation that is fraught with peril in North America’s secular culture, and a Solomonic conundrum in a land such as Israel where faith and State are so deeply interlocked. Some will doubtless disagree with Jonas, but it would not be truly convivial to reactively dismiss his words without reflection. We are at a time, after all, when careful listening and consideration are perhaps the greatest necessities of all.

Peter Stockland

Convivium Publisher

Convivium: You’re an observant Jew who works from within a religious community to advance sexual and gender rights of Israelis deemed to be outsiders to Judaic law. Is the focus of your work really about helping LGBT people live normal, public lives in Israel while remaining foundationally religious people?

Daniel Jonas: Yes, and letting them stay within the Orthodox Jewish world.

Convivium: How much influence does the diaspora have within Israel on this issue? Or, the other way, how much effect does Israel have on the diaspora on the issue?

Daniel Jonas: It's a very complex dialogue. In the diaspora, there's much more political and social power (for) the more progressive realms of Judaism - the Conservative, the Reform, Reconstructionist, which in Israel are almost non-existent and have very minor influence.              

Obviously, they are very accepting. Not the Orthodox, of course, but even if you're an Orthodox Jew in the diaspora, it's quite easy for you to come out. You probably won't stay Orthodox because of the strength of those synagogues and communities. But it's not like you can’t choose to go to another community. The Conservative community is quite close to the modern Orthodox, and so on.

In Israel, it's not possible. If you choose to leave Orthodoxy, you're probably going to stay secular. Most people won't choose another (Judaic community) because, again, there are not so many synagogues that are Reform or Conservative.

C: So they would be left adrift in a sense?

DJ: Exactly. Because Jews in the diaspora are more progressive, they show an example to Israeli society. It's not directly connected, but a good comparison is with the huge outcry involving the Western Wall. The Israeli government pulled back from its own decision to open a third section for the liberals, which means no separation between men and women and so on. It made a huge buzz around the Jewish world. Jewish community leaders cancelled meetings with the Prime Minister over it. I don’t think that’s every happened before. It's made an impact on Israeli society. Suddenly, people have started to say, "Hey, what’s happening? We're supposed to be one nation, and we can't act like that. We can't separate ourselves from the needs and wishes and beliefs (of liberal Jews). And I think that will also happen with the LGBT issue. The progressiveness of Jews in the diaspora gives us as Israelis an example of how to deal with these issues.

C: But isn’t the Orthodox community abroad, in the diaspora, even more conservative than the Orthodox community in Israel? Why would that be?

DJ: Because in Israel, you'll be a Jew whatever happens. In the diaspora, the chances that you’d stay in your (religious) community, or even that your kids would stay Jewish, are not so high. But there is also always a dialogue between the (Israeli and diaspora) communities. People go back and forth. They meet one another. It's not disconnected, and it's very influential.

For example, three or four years ago, there was a statement by the Association for Orthodox Rabbis in the United States, which is a huge association of over 1,000 rabbis. They spoke openly about the need to accept LGBT people. And that had a huge influence in Israel, which also led to the almost identical declaration, with a bit more progress, by the Israel association. So, in Israel the Orthodox hear things that happen in the States, and they follow what’s said. One settles into the other.

C: You used the word accepting. You’re very politically active, involved in city politics in your native Jerusalem, working to change what you see as inequalities there and elsewhere in the Jewish State. By any North American definition, you’re an activist, and North Americans don’t often think of activists as people willing to settle for acceptance. So what does acceptance mean to you? What is it in an Israeli context? How far does it go?

DJ: It really depends. It's a very individual question. It has to do a lot with the person, the situation, family, and community. For some people, acceptance will be the fact that they will not be thrown out of their home.

For me, that’s not enough. For us, acceptance is to be totally part of our communities. It means no one will ever ask us questions or doubt our beliefs, our existence, our membership in the community. That, for us, is full acceptance. But of course, there is everything in between. We know there are places where we need to be happy with less.

For example, I won't dare to think today that the Ultra Orthodox community will accept us. But we do hear more and more stories of people who are aware of their own situation, and try to deal with it, and have maybe even told their wives, or rabbis, or good friends, or whatever, and they’re okay with that. Saying “okay” does not mean they are accepting, but they don't throw them out either, right? That's a place to start..

C: From my Catholic perspective, a lot of these issues are rooted in a particular anthropology, that is, in a specific understanding of the human person. So the argument, the dialogue, becomes about the certain point at which changing ourselves in order to be “accepting” means changing that anthropology and so changing the faith itself. I would think that in Judaism you'd have more openness around that particular challenge because, as you said, you're not going to not be a Jew. You don’t have the essential conflict….

DJ: I think, in that sense, in Judaism, it should be easier, though it isn’t necessarily. Because Judaism, especially when it comes Orthodox Judaism, is very much based on deeds, not so much on beliefs and thoughts. Christianity is based primarily on beliefs and thoughts, and has less to do with deeds. So we try to avoid, for now, the talk about what we can or can't do according to the Jewish law. We focus more on the social aspect. What is it to be gay in an Orthodox community? What about family? What about the children? What about companionship? All these things have nothing to do with the deeds themselves, with what is written in the Bible, with what is forbidden. We always say, “let's put that aside, speak about all the rest, then one day we'll come back to that, as well.” Let's solve the rest. We say always, too, that somehow, the second I came out, my bedroom became a public issue. No one asks my parents or my friends what they do or not do in their bedroom.

C: We had a prime minister who famously said the State has no business in the bedrooms of the nation.

DJ: So we demand the same treatment from the community. Please, let's talk about us as human beings, and not as sinners, in that sense. Because, according to Judaism, it’s not like you have to immediately jump to the conclusion that we are sinners. We can do a lot that has nothing to do with (sin) itself.

C: But private acts can have public consequences, can’t they? Our latest census data shows a tiny number of same-sex couples have been married since Canadian law was changed about 10 years ago. Even so, there are now 10,000 children of same-sex families. So, “acceptance” creates a real consequence of public change, whether or not we reserve judgment on something being a sin.

DJ: But that’s why we need to separate the religious perspective and the civil one. In the last year, too, we hear more and more Orthodox rabbis saying they are willing to accept legal partnership, or something like it, recognized by the State. They’re not only willing to accept it. Some think it's important. But they won't ever dare to speak about having Jewish weddings. And that is a separation I can live with.

Our rights as citizens, on one hand, have nothing to do with Judaism. Our State, Judaism, the community is much wider than the question of whether marry or not. But the fact we're here is a fact. The fact we are now getting married and having children is another fact.

C: But it raises a question that seems to go to the core of the identity of the Jewish State. How do you find that delicate balance between what you’re working for, and Israel as a State that is indivisible from Judaism?

DJ: That's a huge question, and doesn’t concern only the LGBT issue.  In Israel, there is no separation between religion and State, which means that you can't get married out of the church. And there are a limited number of religions that are recognized in Israel. I think it's about nine. One of the religions that is not officially recognized in Israel is Baha’i, even though they have a huge temple in Haifa and there is the population of a few hundred thousand. But, according to Israeli law, they can't get married in Israel because the State does not recognize the Baha’i faith officially.

And there is no civil marriage. So if you are a Baha’i living in Israel and you want to get married, you have to go elsewhere to marry according to the Baha’i faith, or to get married in a civil marriage. So, the same goes for us. As LGBT people, we can't get married because there's no church or religion in Israel that lets same sex couples get married.                                     

 So we need to go abroad and get married. That's what my husband and I did. We went to Copenhagen. You come back to Israel with the certificate, and you're recognized by the State as married because the State recognizes every legal marriage made abroad.

But we can't get married in Israel. Again, it's not only us. If you're a Jew who wants to marry a non-Jewish person, or even a Catholic who wants to marry a Protestant, one of you will have to convert to be able to marry in the same church.

C: So you can be married in Israel but you can't become married in Israel?

DJ: Right. So, like most of the concerns around LGBT issues, it’s dealt with by appealing to the High Court. There is only one law in Israel legislation that actually mentions LGBTs. It's a law that took almost five years to pass. It was added to the law against discrimination against kids in schools. They added sexual orientation and gender identity. It shows where we still need to work.

The Israel political system is based on coalitions. With one exception, I think there has never been a coalition without the Ultra Orthodox parties, and they will never let that pass. There was a poll lately showing that almost 90 per cent of the Israeli population are for civil marriages, including same sex marriages. Almost 80% of the voters of the parties that are now part of the coalition are for it. But again, those 20% are the Orthodox and without them the coalition falls apart. No one will let the government fall because of that issue.

C: You became involved publicly in LGBT issues because of an act of violence in 2009. How were you moved to take up the cause?

DJ: I came out at age 26. Right after that, I ran away to Amsterdam. Kidding. I went there to study for a year. A week before I was supposed to come back to Israel, it was the first weekend of August, like every year, there was Gay Pride in Amsterdam. And I watched that. It was a really fantastic celebration. People from all genders, races and religions, were there. Everybody celebrated. I came back home, and when Shabbat ended, I opened my computer and I saw there was an attack in a youth club for LGBTs. Two were killed, dozen injured. The attacker has never been found. And that was in 2009.

At that point, I realized it's not enough that my family and friends are accepting. Someone told me a few months ago that I'm brave. I said I don't consider myself brave. I'm lucky. I'm lucky to have such support. But it's not enough that I'm accepted and loved by the people that surround me. We need to act to make the entire Israeli society more accepting.

It was by coincidence that we got married abroad on Israeli Independence Day. It was not a planned political statement. But I also said it in our ceremony that I was sorry we needed to leave our own State, the place where we are actual citizens, on our Independence Day, to get our basic right to live with the person we love.

C: You live in a region synonymous with physical political violence. The Jewish State has been subjected to decades of that violence. But do you see having to do things like go to Denmark to get married as form of social violence?

DJ: I won't say it's social violence. I would never compare it to the attack in Tel Aviv, or anything else like that. I mean, it's the law. And there are many laws in Israel that are even more inconvenient. But we all try to make things better. I'm not angry with the State. We all live in places where there are things to fix.

C: You live in a country where change is possible except where change is forbidden. So what are the prospects for real change? Is it a five-year process? Is it a 10-year process?

DJ: I always think the progress is quite similar to the technical change in smart phones. The time we had to wait for the first cellular to come out as the second generation of cellular phones was double the time that we waited from the second to become the third generation and so on. The gap gets smaller and smaller. For years we were fighting for recognition. Now we are in a place where we are recognized by many, though not all, communities. Now we are talking about kids, and all those things that I would never imagine seven years ago.

C: But how do you measure that progress, which obviously isn’t as concrete as buying a new phone every year?

DJ: About 10 years ago, a very well known rabbi in Israel said, "There is no such a thing as a religious ho…." He would not even pronounce the word “homosexual” because you can't put a name to something that does not exist, right?

About three years later, another well known rabbi said, "We shall all get out of the closet because if we won't, it will never become an issue that the community will have to deal with." If it's one person there, it's no more than a gossip. But when it's a mass of people from all over, from many different communities, then suddenly, it will have to become an issue that the community needs to deal with.

Two years later, another rabbi said that the community needs to accept our kids. Now, he was not speaking about us as couples, but about our kids. But, obviously, a kid doesn't go by himself to kindergarten. It was his way to acknowledge us as families without saying the word.

And two months ago, another rabbi said there’s a need to acknowledge same-sex civil unions because then people are not alone. So you see how things change? From “there is no such a thing” to there's a need to accept same-sex (civil) marriages.

So we are all very influenced by what happens in the world. It’s one of the reasons it is important for me, and for other organizations, to keep an open dialogue with the world, not necessarily just the Jewish world.

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