Locked Doors

By Vered Levy-Barzilai

June 2003


This article is reprinted with permission of Haaretz. Visit www.haaretz.com.

After a close friend, Orthodox like herself, admitted to her that she was a lesbian, Irit Koren decided to conduct a serious academic study of the dilemmas and the difficulties faced by Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox homosexuals and lesbians in Israel.

When Irit Koren was 25 years old, her good friend Tal–who, like her, is Orthodox–told her that she was a lesbian. Koren admits today that she was shocked to discover that Tal, who was one of her close friends, from her own social and cultural circle, could be a lesbian.

In the first chapter of her book Aron Betokh Aron (A Closet Within a Closet), published by Yedioth Ahronoth, Koren frankly describes how she went on the defensive, and as a result had a confrontation with her friend, using all the familiar cliches: “How do you know you’re a lesbian if you’ve never had a boyfriend you loved? If you haven’t tried psychological or hormonal treatment? If you’ve never had a sexual experience with a man?” Tal replied: “How do you know you’re straight even when you don’t have a boyfriend? How would you know you’re straight even if you never had a boyfriend? Do you think that psychological treatment would change you? Do you think that hormonal treatment would cause you to want to spend the rest of your life with a woman?”

Writes Koren: “I had to admit that the answer to those questions was negative … I knew I was straight, because I just knew it … Tal was Tal, and she was both Orthodox and a lesbian. For the first time in my life I was personally acquainted with someone who was a lesbian. I could no longer talk about lesbianism using the same terms and social concepts which I had been taught, as a product of an Orthodox education. I could no longer think about lesbianism in terms of the bored girl from Sheinkin Street [a symbol of trendiness] searching for herself, emotionally disturbed. In my opinion, Tal was and still is one of the most emotionally healthy girls I have known. She has simply never been attracted to men.”

Her curiosity was aroused and Koren, today a 28-year-old doctoral student in the department of gender studies at Bar-Ilan University, began to research the subject. She interviewed Orthodox gays who in their distress had turned to rabbis. The stories she heard differed only slightly from one another, according to the circumstances and to the rabbi’s level of integrity: Some rabbis suggested getting married and conducting a dual relationship, with a man as well; some ruled that the homosexual connection had to stop, because it is an extremely grave sin. Most of the rabbis suggested pretending to be straight, starting a family (while lying to the partner), conducting a normal life, not revealing the secret to anyone, and praying to God that it will pass.

Koren’s master’s thesis in education, which she submitted at Hebrew University, was entitled, “I was born gay and I was born Orthodox.” It included descriptions of difficult personal experiences she had heard from 16 homosexuals and lesbians she interviewed. She adapted the paper into the book A Closet Within a Closet, which was published last week in the context of the series “Yahadut Kan Ve’akhshav” (“Judaism Here and Now”).

The 1950s Kinsey Report determined that about 10 percent of the adult population are homosexuals. Newer studies, which don’t take into account a one-time sexual experience in adolescence, estimate that the percentage of gays in the population is about 4 percent. There is no reason to assume that the situation in the Orthodox population is substantially different. Due to circumstances, Orthodox gays hardly ever “come out,” which is why the reality described in the book arouses so much curiosity.

A double identity

Irit Koren is “modern Orthodox,” as she defines it. She is a member of a well-to-do and supportive family from Jerusalem. Her father, Zvi, is the director-general of the Finance Ministry, and her mother, Hava, is a teacher and educator. Koren is the youngest; she has two sisters and a brother. Her home is national religious in character, “but open to the new religious Orthodox discourse.” Pluralism and feminism were not dirty words in the Koren home. The women, including her mother, don’t cover their hair and they wear pants.

As she grew up, she began to sculpt figures from the Bible; posed difficult questions to her parents about everything she found unacceptable; went out with boys (including secular ones); and showed increasing interest in the injustices she felt halakha (Jewish religious law) imposes on Orthodox women. After studying at Hebrew University, she joined the Orthodox feminist organization Kolech and started studying for a doctorate in gender studies at Bar-Ilan. Her subject is “The ethical problem of the Orthodox wedding ceremony of kinyan [purchase], as it is carried out today.” She considers herself “someone who is studying the different voice in contemporary Judaism.” Her goal is to establish an egalitarian wedding ceremony, which will not posit the woman in an inferior position as the property of her husband, and will not contain the possibility of women later being refused a get (an Orthodox bill of divorcement).

When she began to study the Orthodox gay community, she encountered reactions of scorn, surprise and rejection among her friends, but didn’t give up. “I have this thing–I’m a person who wants to repair the world,” she says. “Orthodox society has to reexamine questions concerning ethics, and to consider the price it is paying and the price individuals within it are paying for its choices.”

First Koren wondered how it was possible to be gay and Orthodox. Isn’t there a built-in internal contradiction vis-a-vis halakha?  Later she investigated why a young Orthodox man or woman who has discovered that he or she is gay doesn’t leave Orthodoxy and assume an easier, uncommitted secular life? What makes them remain within this almost impossible double identity–being gay and Orthodox–and what does such a double life look like? Questions gave rise to more questions. Encounters led to further encounters. Koren heard stories and was exposed to a thriving gay world that existed virtually under her nose, without being aware of its existence.

On the bulletin board in the Open House for gay people in Jerusalem, she hung a notice suggesting that Orthodox homosexuals and lesbians contact her and tell her their personal stories, for the purpose of academic research. The response was immediate.

“They didn’t have to be encouraged,” says Koren. “On the contrary. My feeling was that they had just been waiting for the moment when they could express part of what they had gone through. That they just wanted someone to come who wanted to listen, to record, perhaps even to help them influence the way they are accepted in their families and in Orthodox society.”

“Like a paintbrush into a tube”

The Jewish religion has a very negative view of homosexual relations, and someone who practices homosexuality is sentenced to death. In her book, Koren mentions the sources: “And a man who has sexual relations with a man, they have performed an abomination, they shall be put to death, they are guilty” (Leviticus 20, 13). Rashi [France, 1040-1105, one of the foremost commentators on the Torah] explains that the homosexual act requiring the death penalty is anal sex, or in Rashi’s poetic phrase: “Putting it in like a paintbrush into a tube.” Maimonides [Spain and North Africa, 1135-1204, a leading medieval commentator and philosopher] was no more merciful on this issue, and ruled that if two adult males above the age of 13 sleep with each other, they should both be killed by stoning.

Sexual love between women? The Torah, for some reason, doesn’t specifically mention a prohibition regarding this possibility–which may make homosexuality one of the only issues where women enjoy reverse discrimination in the Bible. But despite this, over time there were commentators who found a source for the prohibition in the verse: “You shall not do as they do in the Land of Egypt, where you dwelled, and you shall not do as they do in the Land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. And you shall not go according to their established practices” (Leviticus 18, 3). And the Sifra [a midrash, or teaching story, on the book of Leviticus, which points out the halakha linked to each verse] comments: “And what are those [established practices]? A man would take a man, the woman would take a woman, a man would take a woman and her daughter, and a woman would be taken by two men, and that’s why it says–`you should not go according to their established practices.'” In other words, all these options are forbidden to Jewish women.

The Talmud, on the other hand, refers specifically to lesbians. There they are called “nashim mesolelot” and in the words of the source: “Women who are `mesolelot‘ are disqualified from marrying a cohen [priest]” (Babylonian Talmud, Yebamot, 71:a). Says Rabbi Shlomo Ben Yitzhak, or Rashi: “Women who lie together `in the manner of intercourse between male and female, they rub their female parts against each other.'” Rashi makes it clear, in order to remove any doubt, that they do it “from desire to have intercourse.” And he rules that this act disqualifies them from marrying a high priest, since a woman who has engaged in it is no longer considered “fully a virgin.” Maimonides, the Rambam, rules regarding mesolelot that their act is not considered znut (a forbidden form of sexual relations), but that they are violating a prohibition, and therefore it is proper “to give her lashes,” and there is an additional suggestion to the husbands: “And a man should take care to prevent his wife from doing this and to prevent women who are known to do it from visiting her, or her from visiting them” (Maimonides: “The laws of prohibited sexual intercourse”).

To each, his own

Koren says that when she read these sources the question disturbed her even more. “I wondered what Tal says to herself, what Orthodox homosexuals and lesbians say to themselves? I was curious as to whether they manage to resolve the contradiction. After all, they are aware that they are violating one of the severe prohibitions in halakha.”

Most of those interviewed answered that they don’t consider themselves responsible for their situation. As Orthodox believers, they attribute their sexual proclivity to the One who brought them into the world. In other words, please direct complaints to the Holy One, Blessed be He. This argument was summed up well in the words of one of them, who is called Ro’ee in the book: “I was born gay and I was born Orthodox. The One who made me, the One who created me, also created me like that.”

Koren was not satisfied with such answers. “I asked what about the more concrete area, like for example, how can you be gay if you want to live according to halakha, which specifically, and very severely, prohibits sexual relations between men. Each one of them had his or her own different personal answers.”

An interviewee named Alon, a 40-year-old man from a Orthodox home, who stopped being observant as a young man, decided in his mid-thirties, after he was already a declared homosexual, to return to religion, and became Orthodox out of choice: “As Rashi said, it is very simple that if there is no penetration, then one isn’t violating the prohibition. So I avoided penetration, and that’s it. It’s like avoiding eating pork; like avoiding turning on the television on Shabbat, I avoided penetration. It didn’t cause my life to suffer.”

An interviewee named Ruth, who lives with her partner Maya, sees the essence of the halakhic prohibition on the issue of homosexuality as another prohibition on mixing different realms. This is her original solution to the conflict: “There is an Orthodox rabbi’s wife who goes around lecturing, and I heard an interpretation from her about the meaning of `the way of a man and a woman’–it’s the position. That means the missionary position, in which one woman is on top of another woman, as though they are imitating the usual form of sexual relations between a man and a woman. Another example is the use of a device that is an imitation of the male sexual organ. That’s another example of imitation–an imitation of the sex between a man and a woman. I don’t do either of those things. There’s a world without that. I have no dissonance with religion, and I don’t even feel that I have anything to resolve.”

Another question that preoccupied Koren was how can a person continue following a Orthodox lifestyle after discovering that he or she is gay. In the book, an interviewee named Amiram answers: “Many people [gays] with whom I spoke told me–`Oh, yes, I was also once Orthodox.’ I don’t want to remove my kippa [skullcap]. I want to continue to observe the mitzvot [religious commandments]. For me, Shabbat (the Sabbath) is Shabbat, for me kashrut [the Jewish dietary laws] is important … I believe in the Torah and I believe in God and that’s my choice, for good and for bad.”

Will an intelligent, modern Orthodox gay person listen to the advice of a rabbi and choose to live a lie? Is a young Orthodox woman likely to fall into the trap of marrying a homosexual without having any idea about it? It turns out that the answer is yes. As an interviewee named Hanan, who is quoted in the book, testified about himself: “It was my choice. During that time it was clear to me that the moment I got married, the homosexual business would be my business, that nobody else had to know about. I can do what I want as long as my wife doesn’t know … I didn’t have the illusion that the moment I got married I would suddenly want to be only with a woman. During the period that I met my wife, I still had connections with men. I didn’t think I would give it up. It’s something inside me.”

“Hanan’s plan didn’t work out. He lived with his wife for a few years and they had a daughter. But his wife sensed very soon that something was wrong. He was madly in love with someone. He told her the secret and she took it hard. They went for therapy that didn’t help. They tried to have an open marriage, in which he could live with her as well as seeing his partner, but in the end they divorced. He has a regular arrangement with his daughter. She visits and sleeps in his house, which he now shares with his partner. There is almost no contact between him and his wife. He says that bitter feelings have remained between them.

Rachel, a married interviewee, who has given birth to and raised a large number of children, says in the book: “Before I got married, I asked the rabbis and my psychologist whether to tell my husband about my sexual proclivity. They all said absolutely not! … After I got married, I had a difficult period … For 13 years in a row I was either pregnant or nursing, so I had no time to think about other things … [Afterward] I began to lift my head above water. That was the first time that I wasn’t so exhausted, and I started to think more about the world, about myself and I reached a crisis.”

After years of soul-searching, Rachel remained with her husband: “For my children, my friends, my family, my community–it was a good choice. But for myself, I don’t know … For years I have been coming out of the closet to more and more friends. My closet, if you want to call it that, has expanded with the years, because I was suffocating there and I felt that I was going to die … Most of my good friends know … It makes a big difference when the closet gets bigger.”

Ro’ee’s story

Last Wednesday I met Ro’ee, one of the people interviewed in the book. A young man, wearing jeans and a T-shirt, with closely cropped hair. A tiny kippa (head covering) on his head was the only sign of his being Orthodox. Ro’ee suggests that I “don’t look at the container.” He says: “I believe in the God of Israel and in the Torah. In my feeling, in my social, cultural, personal identification I am completely Orthodox. I try to observe most of the mitzvot. I would define myself as a liberal modern Orthodox person.”

He is 30 years old, and he was born and raised in a settlement in the West Bank. His family is ideologically identified with the National Orthodox Party. He studied at an Orthodox school, did his army service in a hesder yeshiva (which combines Torah study with military service). He has been living in Tel Aviv for three years. During the past year he has been living with a partner who was formerly Orthodox. The kitchen in the apartment is kosher; his partner respects the lifestyle of Ro’ee, who is Sabbath-observant, although the partner himself is now completely secular.

Ro’ee seems to be a person who lives in relative harmony with himself and his environment.

“That’s now,” he says. “But the road was long and full of ups and downs. They sent me to rabbis, they sent me to psychologists, for therapy. There were difficult years. My parents still don’t come here, to my apartment. It’s very hard for them. When I invited my father he said–when you get married, we’ll come. And he didn’t mean my boyfriend … My mother always said, whatever happens, the main thing is that we continue to talk, to stay in contact. It doesn’t matter what comes up, and how hard it is for her to hear it. I simply ignore that part entirely, I don’t think about it.”

The parents of his partner, a Sephardi Orthodox family (of North African or Middle Eastern origin) who belong to Shas, took it harder. His father disowned him, and since then, there has been no contact between them. The father considers homosexuality a deviation, a sickness, a terrible thing that he can’t bear.

What’s the different between your lifestyle and that of an average secular Tel Aviv gay?

Ro’ee: “The issue of observing the mitzvot, of course. And I actually conduct two lives. In a certain society–my parents’ home and the social environment there, I live like an Orthodox person, and in a certain society, like a gay. Although I have more and more friends who are gay and secular. These are two separate planes, and I still have to separate them from each other. In my Tel Aviv society, I’m Orthodox, I go everywhere with a kippa, I don’t take it off. It’s important to me for people to know that I’m Orthodox in every situation. It’s a positive phenomenon that one sees more in Jerusalem–people come to gay parties wearing a kippa.”

Have your parents accepted the situation?

“No. A friend of my father’s, a man his age, very well known in the settlement, came to me. We met and he suddenly told me that he’s gay. An older man, with children, a family. He ‘heard about me’ from someone, and felt that he had to pour out his heart to me. He said that he had come to support me. Afterward he met with my father and told him everything. My father doesn’t forgive him for that. From his point of view, that destroyed the relationship between them.

“They were good friends. The friend tried to make my father a little bit more aware. To have him open up. He told my father: I want you to know that 30 years ago I chose to deny my identity, to marry and raise a family, and today I might choose differently. My father was in shock. Not only didn’t it change his position, he saw an opportunity to try to bring me back on track. And he said to me–here, look, why don’t you do what he did? Find a girl who’ll understand you, get married, raise a family, live a good, normal life. With time, you’ll get over it.”

And your mother?

“She doesn’t say the specific word. She calls it ‘your problem.’ Let’s say [she’ll comment],’maybe, if you find a girl with a problem like yours’–sentences like that.”

Are you angry?

“No, I understand them. I understand how hard it is for them. Imagine, for 10 years people have been trying to fix me up with girls, and every time they have to invent excuses. It’s not easy. And what does one say to the aunts, and to friends who have young, pretty daughters … Considering the fact that we are an Orthodox family, and compared to other cases I hear about, they accept it quite well.”

What was the most difficult thing for you?

“The threat of ostracism, of course. And the conspiracy of silence, and ignoring the problem. In the context of Orthodox education there is no homosexuality. I think that’s a mistake. A lot of suffering would be prevented for many people like me if the subject were discussed. It would make a difference. And the business with the rabbis is very difficult for me.”

What exactly?

“Some give you advice like–get married, you’ll get over it. Some aren’t capable of listening and discussing the subject, and some rabbis think that they have to find heterim [permission in the context of halakha] for engaging in homosexual relations. I don’t think that’s their job. Their more important contribution could be on the social level; it’s a process that will probably take many years. Only afterward, after social recognition, will Orthodox recognition come.”

What does the future hold for you?

“I’m working in my profession. I’m in a loving relationship with a partner, and I want children. I decided to find an Orthodox lesbian woman who wants to bring a child into the world with me. It won’t be an easy task, but it’s possible. I’m working on it.”

A child born to an Orthodox gay father and his secular boyfriend–who will be considered an additional father–and an Orthodox lesbian mother and her partner–who will be considered an additional mother–will have to internalize this maze of relationships and try to maneuver between them.

“Yes, there’s no doubt that his life won’t be simple. People have said to me–it’s unethical and unfair to bring a child into such a situation. But I say that children always come into a situation: of relations between the parents; of the place where their parents decided to live; of the genes they carry; of the time when they were brought into the world; of character; of many things. In the end, the only relevant question is whether the child grows up with love or not.”


About Vered Levy-Barzilai

Vered Levy-Barzilai writes for Haaretz.