jews _ homophobes torah
We Call Out Homophobic Clerics, But What About The Rabbis?

Murdoch based outlets have been chasing down Muslim clerics for their views, but leaders from other faiths with a poor history on LGBTI rights don’t draw the same attention.

In the week since the Iftar hosted by the Prime Minister, the Murdoch press has scoured the records of Muslim clerics in attendance. They have documented repulsive comments towards homosexuality, with Murdoch bloggers (and Media Watch) pursuing with great interest the question of Islam’s relation to homosexuality. The ABC’s Paul Barry says that this is “a subject our political leaders and the media will be forced to confront.”

Religion is never an excuse for homophobia. There is a need to challenge reactionary religious leaders with appalling views on homosexuality and LGBTQI communities. I’m sure that the Murdoch press has been challenging Muslim leaders because of its heartfelt concern for gay people in Australia.

Due to this touching concern, I thought I’d bring to their attention a few cases of homophobic rabbis, who have somehow escaped their exhaustive quest against prejudice.

Pictured below is a meeting of various leading rabbis associated with the Organisation of Rabbis of Australasia, meeting with Prime Minister Tony Abbott last year. Rabbis present include Rabbi Yehoram Ulman, Rabbi Paul Lewin, Rabbi Yaakov Glasman, Rabbi Meir Klugwant, Rabbi Pinchas Feldman, and Rabbi Chaim Ingram.

jews _ homophobes _Rabbis

Second from the right in that picture, face partially obscured by Abbott, is Rabbi Ingram.

Rabbi Ingram has repeatedly argued that gay Jewish people should commit suicide, rather than engage in homosexuality.

In the 20 July 2012 edition of the Australian Jewish News – two and a half years before meeting the Prime Minister – Rabbi Ingram argued in an article that Orthodox Judaism sees homosexuality “as a sin for which one must be prepared to give up one’s life as necessary”.

The following week, the AJN ran what it called an apology. It said “Rabbi Chaim Ingram expressed an opinion on homosexuality held by certain sections of the Jewish community. The AJN apologises for any offence caused.”

Not a minority opinion. Not an unpopular opinion, let alone a reprehensible one. Just an opinion held by “certain sections” of the Jewish community. Rabbi Ingram himself did not apologise. He continued to advocate his position. On October 19 that year, he wrote in one of his many letters to the AJN that “homosexuality is one of a handful of offences (and prawn-eating is not one of them), which one is bidden to resist even on pain of death.”

jews homo phobes letters-to-ajn

No “apology” was issued for that letter. Some letter writers harshly criticised Rabbi Ingram, and he responded by criticising one person’s “intolerant desire to silence me”.

Rabbi Ingram is among the more prominent rabbis in Australia, as shown by his inclusion in the ORA delegation. In March 2012, he was among the signatories of the Rabbinical Council of NSW’s submission to the Senate inquiry on marriage equality. Rabbis Ulman and Lewin also signed the submission, though inquiries were to be directed to Honorary Secretary, Rabbi Ingram. The submission argues that “all humankind remains bound by” the “universal moral code” of the Torah. “Central” to its “key universal values… are norms relating to human sexuality which endorse the stable sexual union of a man and a woman in a socially recognised relationship of mutual commitment whilst rejecting other sexual unions notably adultery, incest, bestiality and homosexuality.” (emphasis added)

That is, the submission of the RCNSW explicitly classed homosexual unions in the same category of rejected sexual unions as bestiality. Three of the four signatories to that submission met with the Prime Minister Tony Abbott within a few years. In December 2013 – over a year after Rabbi Ingram had repeatedly expressed his view about what weak-willed gay people should do – he launched a book. Warm speeches were given by other influential rabbis, like Rabbi Pinchus Feldman, the leader of Chabad in NSW.

During the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Rabbi Feldman allegedly told a perpetrator of child sexual abuse that he should take steps to avoid it, but otherwise took no action. He also didn’t tell police of an alleged perpetrator leaving Australia because he “did not know there was any such obligation”. And before the Royal Commission, his son Rabbi Eli Feldman called a perpetrator, later convicted, to ask if he had had a conversation with Rabbi Feldman in the 1980s.

Rabbi Klugwant resigned as President of the Organisation of Rabbis of Australasia, and as executive member of the Rabbinical Council of Victoria, in the wake of damaging revelations. Specifically, in response to one victim of child sexual abuse urging victims in an email to come forward, Rabbi Klugwant told the victim he shouldn’t have sent the email. When the father of another victim gave evidence, Rabbi Klugwant called the father a “maniac” who was “attacking Chabad”. Again, Rabbi Klugwant met with the Prime Minister.

As for the Rabbinical Council of NSW, its President, Rabbi Yossi Feldman, remained President in 2011 after emails leaked, in which he urged rabbis to tell victims of child sexual abuse not to go to the police, but to only report the crimes to rabbis. He stepped aside for several weeks, but was then reinstated until the 2012 AGM. He also argued that complaining to the police would hurt his “friend”, later convicted as a child sexual abuser, and that victims don’t know if the perpetrator will re-offend anyway. Other highlights include his position that media attention merely encourages “fake victims”, apparently including “phony attention seeker” Manny Waks.

Or take another luminary of the religious Jewish establishment. Rabbi Shimon Cowen doesn’t give popular lectures on YouTube, but writes complex essays in sophisticated language. In July 2011, he argued that it was “Stalinist” how “opposition to homosexual behaviour” was treated as an illness, instead of homosexuality itself. In an article devoted to criticising the Safe Schools Coalition program in Victoria, he argued against teaching children that homosexuality was normal or acceptable, but was merely an abnormal urge which could be overcome with therapy:

“From a religious standpoint, if a person felt an overwhelming homosexual impulse of the deepest nature, that would be viewed with compassion but it would not constitute permission to indulge homosexual activity in practice. It is an abnormality, which as far as possible should be treated. However, there is a wide spectrum of children and persons who experience sexual identity confusion and can yet prevail upon themselves to accept what for the world religious cultures is the normative model of heterosexual behaviour. The homosexual lobby has a stake in rejecting therapy and the idea that humans can change and take control of their impulses. Paradoxically, it can be argued, their attempt to block this change and drive children deeper into malaise is the potential cause of great suffering. Those who insist that a child is homosexual and should embrace a homosexual lifestyle can compound the psychological malaise. They compound an illness.”

Rabbi Cowen is the Founding Director of the Institute for Judaism and Civilisation, an Associate at Monash University when he published his essay. In June 2012, a year after the above essay was published, his Institute received a $20,000 grant from the government. It was part of the Federal Government’s Building Community Resilience, to resist “intolerant ideologies”. Other contributors to his forums include Coalition MP Cory Bernardi and Labor MP Michael Danby.

In May 2012 – not long before Rabbi Cowen received his generous government grant – he once again advocated at length for his position, which he also attributed to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, that gay people, “with the exercise of free will and the help of educators, therapists and counsellors, individuals can overcome these drives”. Sadly, the current day American Psychiatric Association “rejects freedom, choice and cure in homosexuality.”

The peak body for Jews in Australia responded to Rabbi Cowen’s 2011 essay in February 2012. It supported anti-bullying programs in schools. As for the Rabbi, they wrote: “Rabbi Dr Cowen is highly respected in our community but that does not mean that his views on any subject are representative. We note also that in his recent article, Rabbi Cowen fully condemns bullying of any child inter alia on the grounds of homosexual behaviour.”

It’s a miracle the Rabbi survived such a vicious rebuke. Rabbi Moshe Gutnick, at the time President of the Organisation of Rabbis of Australasia, defended Rabbi Cowen’s essay on the Safe Schools program.

Back in 2011, the Jewish News criticised an “alarmist” report which Rabbi Cowen said “misquoted” him, to the effect that Jewish schools and hospitals wouldn’t hire gay people. Rabbi Cowen clarified: “I did not say that a Jewish school must necessarily make a close examination of the background and private lives of its teachers… But where it is evident that a teacher models, in a known and outward manner, sexual practices which run contrary to Judaism, a school has every right not to hire that teacher.”

So there you have it, our community’s “highly respected” rabbi doesn’t think all gay people should be barred from employment at Jewish schools. Just the ones who are noticeably gay. His view was naturally supported by the then President of the Rabbinical Council of Victoria, Rabbi Yaakov Glasman. He thought religious institutions should be able to hire people who adhere to religious values.

About four years later, he also met with the Prime Minister. He’s also in the picture at the top of this article.

So there you have it. Rabbis who oppose hiring gay teachers, who think gay people should be treated so that they can overcome their illness, who compare homosexuality to bestiality, a rabbi who thinks weak-willed gay people should commit suicide, and a sample of the sorry record of leading rabbis on the sexual abuse of children.

It’s all public record, and it’s all pretty awful. What will this achieve? Maybe nothing. I’m not sure that a Jewish atheist associated with harsh criticisms of Israel calling out this or that Rabbi will have much constructive effect.

Yet the last week has shown us that the media believes deeply in the value of calling out reactionary religious clerics. Surely, I have now done my bit, and lent a helping hand. Consider the above my contribution to the stories that I am sure are on the way.

I contacted a journalist at the Australian, asking if they would report on homophobic rabbis. I haven’t heard back yet. I’m sure it’s coming. They’re opposed to all homophobia, right?

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