For LGBT Orthodox Jews, Growth of Social Media Creates a Safe Space Online
Websites, blogs, Facebook groups, and online support groups offer the chance to connect without the risk of ‘going public’
Rabbi Nati Helfgot, the author of the 2010 declaration, said that social media was not in itself what drove the change in attitudes and open discussion, but rather the vehicle by which these evolving attitudes have become more widely known. “It’s not social media,” he said. “It’s a sea change in American culture. Homosexuality was once something considered aberrant and bizarre, that was hidden and suppressed, whereas today it’s discussed openly and honestly. It’s a total transformation. As modern people involved in the world, that’s had an effect on us … social media just multiplies that effect.”
This has also extended to transgender Jews. While not explicitly forbidden in the Torah—it may fall under the prohibition of self-mutilation, cross-dressing, or, for male-to-female transsexuals, a violation of the positive commandment to reproduce—gender reassignment is generally viewed as prohibited within Orthodoxy. There is, however, an unusually sympathetic responsa by Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, the Tzitz Eliezer, another leading halachic decider, who stated that those who have undergone gender-reassignment surgery are now considered by Jewish law to be members of that new gender.
Joy Ladin, the David and Ruth Guttesman Chair in English at Yeshiva University, who underwent gender reassignment surgery in 2007 and wrote about her life in her 2012 memoir Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders, said she is in touch daily with transgender Orthodox Jews. “There’s a negotiation that’s occurring,” she explained. “The difference is that it’s happening much faster. Previously before the Internet it would have happened within communities; now it’s across communities with many rabbis conversing about it and everyone reflecting on it. “
Ladin cautions, however, against seeing Internet communities as a cure-all for the loneliness many LGBT Orthodox Jews experience. “I think community is an overused word,” she said. “One of the problems that Orthodox LGBT have is that they’re Orthodox and they know what a community really is. Community is not a metaphor for them, it’s literal. When they transition, they lose their community and it’s like an amputation. They can’t find that community again so they need to make their own.”
At last count, there are several Orthodox LGBT support groups with an online presence, in addition to Keshet, including Eshel, which was started by a collaborative effort that included Rabbi Steve Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi; the Dina Listserv for Orthodox and formerly Orthodox transsexuals; Tirzah: a community of Frum Queer Women; and Temicha, an online support group for Orthodox Jewish parents of gay children. There are countless blogs, from teens writing about their experiences being openly gay inside a Modern Orthodox environment, and a blog from an openly gay Orthodox man living in the Syrian Jewish community, the melancholy It’s Like Disapproving of Rain blog, to an Orthodox teenager writing about her life with gay parents. A quick search on Facebook with the words “Jewish” and “gay” will lead to several pages, from a gay pride minyan on the Upper West Side to small group called Orthodox Jews Against Homophobia.
As for Moshe, as he continued writing, his blog began receiving more hits. He also discovered that people were finding his blog by searching online using keywords like “gay,” “frum,” “Orthodox,” and “married.” Once he discovered how many other people were searching for a blog like his, he says, he felt less alone and marshaled the strength to come out to his wife. “I finally did it,” he wrote in December 2011. “On Friday night I broke down and told my wife about my attraction toward men … ” The revelation was painful, but at the end, “We talked about some of the men in my life and who I am attracted to and who not. It got to the point where we were able to even laugh about it.”
The two divorced, though his ex-wife remains his biggest advocate. Eventually, he was outed within his religious community: Neighbors pieced together the fact that he and his wife had always seemed like a model couple, and remained friendly even as they were getting divorced. Friends also figured out who he was from his blog postings.
Surprisingly, the outing wasn’t as bad as Moshe feared. While there was a backlash, it was nowhere near what he had expected. He doesn’t physically live in that community anymore, but he still considers himself Orthodox. When he returns to visit, Moshe said, he’s greeted with kindness and respect. “What ended up happening is I broke the stereotype,” he said. “People started seeing me as Moshe who happens to be gay, not as the homosexuality defining me. … I feel honest. I feel whole. I feel like I’m done hiding who I am.”
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Long after the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed, Talmudic rabbis kept it alive in their imaginations, and ours