The Tragic Paradox of Tel Aviv

COMMENTARY: James Kirchick says last week's shooting at a gay youth center in Tel Aviv could have only happened in Israel ... because it's the only place in the Middle East where gay people can meet in the open.

BY James Kirchick

August 09 2009 11:00 PM ET

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld x390 (getty) | advocate.com

It is often remarked that religion is the greatest obstacle to society's overcoming its irrational fear and loathing of homosexuality. If that's the case, then last week's vigil in the nation's capital did offer one glimmer of hope. That's due to a surprising and heartening message from Shmuel Herzfeld, a local Orthodox rabbi. The mere presence of an Orthodox religious figure at such an event seemed to shock many in the audience, as Orthodox Judaism proscribes homosexuality, just like its fellow Abrahamic faiths. But Herzfeld had only words of support for the gay community, and, more surprisingly, words of criticism for his fellow Orthodox clergy.

The murders, he began, represented an "an attack upon all those who believe, as I do, that the land of Israel should be a homeland for all Jews."

But he went further than any of his Orthodox colleagues, both here and in Israel, who contented themselves with condemning the criminal aspect of the shooting while neglecting to address the greater problem of antigay sentiment in religious communities. Though the perpetrator has yet to be found and no motive is yet determined, Herzfeld, who counts many of Washington's influential journalists, politicians, and power brokers (many of them political conservatives) as friends, pointed the finger at his own denomination, which condemns homosexuality. There must be an "internal accounting," he demanded, and a serious discussion about "whether or not the rhetoric coming out of the Orthodox community is contributing to this violence." Though the event was a solemn occasion, the crowd let out a spontaneous burst of applause, the only speech for which they had such an enthusiastic reaction.

Religious orthodoxy has proven itself enormously resistant to the temptations of secular culture and social change in general. While public attitudes about homosexuality have transformed dramatically for the better over the past 50 years, religious communities remain incredibly difficult places for gay people to exist. Let us hope, therefore, that Rabbi Herzfeld is not an anomaly but a marker of things to come.

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