THE Chief Rabbi has no regrets about the guide to the wellbeing of LGBT+ pupils in Orthodox schools that he published last September.
Although he is uncompromising about the fact that the Torah forbids LGBT+ relationships, Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis insists: “It is not a reason to drive somebody out of our community.”
He said he had been “very moved” by the response to the guide from around the world.
During a wide-ranging interview, he declared: “I lament the fact that because of the attitude we sometimes take within the Orthodox communities, there are those who consider themselves to be LGBT who have been raised in religious and committed homes who feel that they don’t have a home any more within an Orthodox Jewish community and of their own volition they leave.
“We are losing these people to our Judaism. To those who say, ‘We don't mind if they leave’, I counter that every single soul is precious and without condoning what is wrong we need to welcome people in our shuls.”
Rabbi Mirvis continued: “In our shuls, we welcome people who drive to shul on Shabbat even though it is wrong.
“We welcome people who are living in an adulterous relationship, even though it is wrong.
“We welcome people who are cheating in business, even though that is one of the most serious things you can do.
“It’s contrary to our Torah laws. We don’t bar them from being part of a community.
“No two areas of sinful conduct are the same, but the principal is the same, and I very much believe in Torat chesed, the Torah of loving kindness, because that is what our Torah is all about.”
Rabbi Mirvis admitted that there were pupils with LGBT+ issues during his own schooldays in Cape Town, although he didn’t realise it at the time.
“I think it’s happened to all of us, hasn’t it?” he asked. “People I knew, later came out, or something like that.”
He has received numerous comments from people lamenting the fact that no such guide existed while they were at school, saying that things would have been so much better for them.
“But,” said Rabbi Mirvis, “some go further. If only this guide had existed when I was at school, somebody who took their life would be alive today.”
“Basically,” he said, “I’m saying to these people, ‘what you’re doing is wrong. but I respect you as a person and I want you to be part of our community.
“Every school has these issues and if schools claim that they don’t, they are ignorant of what is happening.”
He added that the guide was now being adapted for use in other countries as well as by the Muslim community and the Church of England, which they are using to formulate their own publications.
“I’m so touched and moved that the guide has had a genuine global impact,” he said, agreeing that it had been courageous of him to issue it.
“As Chief Rabbi, I don’t just want to carry out duties, be a functionary,” he said.
“I’m in this privileged position to hopefully help and to ensure that people realise that our Torah is relevant.”
Despite the backlash from some charedi quarters, he insists: “I’m very happy with the global impact.”
He said: “We need to show more compassion. I think it is understanding. I think we need to make it absolutely clear that homosexual relationships are forbidden according to the Torah as I do within the guide.
“The guide does not in any way weaken the Torah stand on what is right and what is wrong. The guide fully supports it and articulates it.”
Describing it as “a significant work within the Jewish world, within Orthodoxy”, Rabbi Mirvis believes it was the first of its kind “to actually put into black and white certain guidelines on a very import and and sensitive issue”.
He stressed that in preparing it, he consulted widely with the dayanim of the London Beth Din and particularly with Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu.
All, he said, were aware of its content and gave it their blessing.
Rabbi Mirvis conceded that there had been some criticism from people “who obviously haven’t read it, because their criticisms are not based on the real thing”.
He went on: “For people who read it, they will see the reasons why I actually wrote it. It’s pikuach nefesh, the saving of lives.”
Rabbi Mirvis pointed to statistics that show there is a significant level of depression, self- harm, attempted suicide and suicide “within the ranks of those whose minds are in turmoil with regard to their sexual orientation”.
He went on: “As I wrote in the guide, not only are we presiding over schools where this has happened, but unwittingly we might be contributing to what is happening and aggravating the situation because we don’t know the right things to say, the right comments, or not knowing the right terms to use.
“That’s why I devote pages in the guide to terminology. Just know what offends and what doesn’t offend, and the sense of the work is, this is a Torah presentation.
“The Torah says certain relationships are forbidden and I quote that more than once in the guide, make it clear.
“And the Torah also says ‘love they neighbour as yourself, do not stand idly by the blood of your brother, sister, do not harm others with words’.
“We have a responsibility to every Jewish person, every human being, and that is a Torah responsibility.”
Was that not a contradiction within the Torah?
“No,” Rabbi Mirvis responded. “The Torah in general is the will of the Almighty and He determines what we should or should not do. But certainly life is challenging.”
He pointed out that the LGBT+ guide also articulated other Torah laws which we needed to champion, including “being a menschlechdik person, being considerate, being compassionate, being altruistic.
“That’s right at the heart of true Torah Judaism.
“And when somebody is going through an element of turmoil, that’s a time to reach out and to understand.
“Not to condone what is wrong, but to show rachmonas and greater sensitivity. I think that’s important.”
On the subject of conversion therapy (the belief that those who are LGBT+ are medically curable), Rabbi Mirvis said: “What I advise is that people who are caught within the trauma of not knowing what their identity is, what’s happening in their lives, if they believe they are LGBT+ they should approach a rabbi.
“The rabbi needs to know who to refer the person to. That’s why we are holding sessions with our rabbis, so our rabbis and rebbetzens and schoolteachers can have the know-how, how to deal with this, who to send the person to.”
He added: “If you are in a position where you are responsible for guiding a person, one of the first things you need to know is what am I personally equipped to deal with and what do I need to pass on to someone else.
“We need such situations to be dealt with responsibly for the sake of the individuals concerned and their future.
“It needs to be done within the ambit of Torah law.”
Turning to the thorny issue of transgenderism, Rabbi Mirvis said he was receiving many questions about it from throughout the Commonwealth.
“Halacha is very clear on this point,” he said.
“According to Jewish law, your gender is the gender you are born with. That’s it, clear-cut.
“Later on there can be issues. What side of the mechitza will somebody sit on, what honours are they given? How do we respect them?
“We will deal with compassion within the boundaries of halacha in situations such as this.”
If, for instance, a man had undergone gender reassignment surgery and arrived in a synagogue dressed as a woman, could he sit in the ladies’ section?
“What we are advising — and I am working with our Beth Din on this — and these questions are becoming more frequent, please come to us, we will advise you,” said Rabbi Mirvis.
“It depends on the shul, the person. Have they gone through surgery or not, what is the situation, who might or might not be offended.
“The one sentence answer is, we will deal with it with compassion within the boundaries of Jewish law.”
He invited communities with a dilemma to approach him.
“They are finding that our approach to this is sensitive, it is understanding and we want to be compassionate and inclusive of people while keeping Torah law,” said Rabbi Mirvis.
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