Israeli orthodox rabbi Mordechai Elon allegedly can’t keep his hands off young men. That inability is not only at the heart of a national sex scandal, but some are arguing it could push the needle forward for gay people within the modern Orthodox sect of Judaism, which condemns gay relations.
Takana, an association of rabbis and other leaders of Israel’s Orthodox Jews that investigates sexual harassment in religious settings, issued a statement in February accusing Elon of engaging in “sexual exploitation” involving other men. In 2006, amid similar allegations, Elon retired from teaching and agreed to limit his contact with male students, but Takana officials said he had breached those terms, leading to the statement on the group’s website. Elon has called the charge “blood libel.” Israeli news sources indicate the students were largely of age, but police intend to investigate further. Meanwhile, a Takana member claims to have received a death threat after the latest accusations against Elon were publicized, and the modern Orthodox establishment is considering drafting a formal ethics code for rabbis.
If the allegations are true, this is certainly a case of “a man in a position of power who abused his power in a hurtful way,” says Steve Greenberg, a New York–based Orthodox rabbi who came out as gay in 1999. But he says it may also help force the Orthodox movement to confront the reality “that being homosexual is not a lifestyle choice,” as Elon had much to lose by acting on same-sex desires. “People must be thinking, This must not be something that Rabbi Elon chose,” adds Greenberg, who says he is the only openly gay Orthodox rabbi in the United States.
In Israel, Hana Kehat, a feminist and pro-gay activist who was once a member of Takana, expressed similar views. “From now on it will be possible to say that it is legitimate to be a religious homosexual,” she told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Also, she said the situation of Elon, who has been outspokenly antigay, bolsters the argument made by some gays that “homophobia is proof of hidden homosexuality.”
While there is still a long journey to acceptance of gays by the Orthodox movement, Greenberg says there is progress. A few months ago, 200 gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews, meeting in Israel to discuss the issues affecting them, invited the head of one of the nation’s modern Orthodox yeshivas to attend, and he did so—something that would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier. “A growing empathy is appearing,” Greenberg says.