"Jonathan" and "David" are observant Jews. They belong to the same Orthodox synagogue in New York City. From time to time, other synagogue members invite them to Shabbat lunch. Periodically, Jonathan and David host a family for Shabbat in the Manhattan apartment they share. Occasionally, someone who doesn't know them well will try to interest one or the other in a nice Orthodox girl. After all, Jonathan and David are single professionals in their early 40s-ripe material for a shiddach (match). But both men always respond, politely, that they are not interested.
That's because Jonathan and David are already committed. To each other.
Jonathan is a social worker. But that does not define him in the Orthodox Jewish world nearly as emphatically as his sexuality. That is why he is not openly gay in his Orthodox community (and why he, and several other gay men interviewed for this article, asked that their real names not be used).
"I am not keeping [it] a secret," says Jonathan, "but I also don't feel I have to make a statement. People don't need to know everything about me-especially something that is so personal."
More and more, gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews seem to be taking Jonathan's approach: acknowledging they are gay, even if they don't advertise it. And in response, a growing number of underground support groups geared specifically to Orthodox Jews are cropping up both online and in Jewish centers in cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and Miami. Their purpose, as one of the groups notes on its Web site, "is to provide a safe place for people to integrate their Jewish and gay identities in a self-affirming, positive manner." The groups hold monthly meetings and special events; some even offer a 24-hour help hotline.
For gay Orthodox Jews, the rise in support groups is a promising development-even though these groups are not officially sanctioned. The Orthodox community has largely overlooked or ignored gays in the past, while Reform and Conservative Jewish leaders have formally and publicly grappled with homosexuality. But the issue is getting harder to ignore. With the release of the documentary film "Trembling Before G-d," the painful lives of gay Orthodox Jews will play out unflinchingly on movie screens nationwide. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah in January. It "stirred much emotion in the audience and immediate interest from buyers," according to a report in the Washington Post, putting the gay Orthodox community in an unfamiliar position: the limelight.
Today, says Chaim, all of that is changing. The underground community is growing, allowing gay Orthodox Jews to associate with each other.
"We come from all kinds of families and all kinds of backgrounds," Chaim says. "We are everywhere."
The Official Orthodox Take
It is hard to imagine two more divergent realities than homosexuality and Orthodoxy. The Torah strictly forbids homosexual sex, and rabbis have consistently upheld that prohibition through the ages. "The Orthodox gay movement is organizing...around something that is unacceptable," says Rabbi Barry Freundel of Kesher Israel, a modern Orthodox synagogue in Washington, DC. "It's like saying we're a group of Orthodox Sabbath violators or Orthodox ham eaters."
The prohibition against homosexual sex comes from Leviticus: "Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence" (18:22). In biblical times, the punishment for violating that code was clear. "If a man lies with a male as one lies with a woman, the two of them have done an abhorrent thing; they shall be put to death-their bloodguilt is upon them" (Leviticus 20:13). The Talmud extends the prohibition to lesbian sex (Sifrei 98). And the Shulchan Aruch, the standard code of Jewish law, reinforced the ban in the 16th century. "In these generations," the citation begins, "when sexual licentiousness is rampant, a man should distance himself from lying together with another man." Indeed, throughout the ages, according to the Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion, "The Orthodox have continued to denounce homosexual sex while accepting the homosexual as a full, but sinning, Jew."