There are roughly five million Jews in the United States, though that number is often debated. According to Pew research, 10% of American Jews identify as Orthodox, and roughly one third of Orthodox Jews identify as Modern Orthodox, a subset of orthodoxy. That means there are roughly 500,000 Orthodox Jews in America, and 155,000 of them identify as Modern Orthodox.
Like other Orthodox denominations, Modern Orthodox Jews strictly interpret the laws of the Bible and the teachings of the rabbis. They differ, however, by engaging more with the secular world.
There has been very little research that looks at the lives of gay men within the Orthodox community, and what studies have been conducted don’t differentiate between the denominations within orthodoxy. The select research that has focused on Orthodox Jews often explores the impact of remaining closeted, since most gay Orthodox Jews don't actually come out to anyone.
In a 2015 article published in the Journal of Homosexuality, titled “It’s a Horrible Sin. If They Find Out, I Will Not be Able to Stay: Orthodox Jewish Gay Men’s Experiences Living in Secrecy,” researchers Haya Itzhaky, Ph.D., and Karni Kissil, Ph.D., explained that Orthodox Jews (of all denominations) fear coming out and seldom do because they worry they’ll be excommunicated from their families and community.
Samuel Allen, Ph.D., and Laura Golojuch Ph.D., of the University of Maryland, Department of Family Science sought to fill the gaps in literature by speaking with Modern Orthodox Jews who are actually out to family members. In their recent work, published in The Journal of GLBT Family Studies this past December, the researchers spoke with seven 19 to 24-year-old Modern Orthodox gay men, whom they recruited through the Jewish Queer Youth, a New York City-based nonprofit organization that empowers Jewish LGBTQ youth. At the time of data collection, all the participants had disclosed their sexual orientation to both their parents. For the study, each of the young men completed one-on-one interviews. The researchers hoped to better understand these young men’s experiences in the Modern Orthodox community as children, as well as what happened once they came out to their parents.
When one participant, Aaron, was asked to describe what he learned about homosexuality growing up, he responded, “Nothing. Nothing at all… I don’t think I really formed an opinion on [homosexuality] because there just wasn’t a presence of it… in high school, or synagogue, or anything.”
All but one young man, said their parents responded with acceptance when they came out as gay, which greatly surprised the researchers.
“Considering Modern Orthodox Jews’ strict adherence to Jewish law in belief and in practice, I didn’t expect them to be accepting of such an explicit biblical prohibition,” Dr. Allen tells NewNowNext.
During the interview, Adam, another participant, described his mother’s response in detail to the researchers. She was crying, but said, “Don’t worry, I’ve always known, and we still love you, and nothing’s gonna change, and we support you in everything.”
Despite being outwardly supportive to their children, parents’ acceptance was conditional, contingent on two factors. The first, not telling anyone outside the immediate family about being gay.
One mother who initially responded well to her son’s sexual identity “really took a turn for the worse” once she learned of how many people he had already told prior to coming out to her.
The second factor necessary for parental acceptance was to remain religious and continue practicing Judaism. Nevertheless, at the time of the interview, all seven participants indicated that they were less religious in belief and practice than they once were, and roughly a third identified as atheists.
“In some ways, having a conditional acceptance is more challenging than either outright acceptance or outright rejection,” explains Dr. Allen. “It allowed for relational ambiguity that persisted long after participants came out to their parents. And an ambiguous reaction is often the hardest type because it defies resolution.”
This mirrors the experience of Ari Weitz, a 30-year-old gay Jew who grew up Modern Orthodox in New Jersey and attended Yeshiva (an Orthodox Jewish College where students study the Torah).
Weitz tells NewNowNext that when he came out to his father, “There were tears of joy and awkward laughing, when we both realized we had no idea what to do.”
His mother initially responded with a “classic Jewish mother guilt thing,” saying she wished Weitz told her sooner, so that he wouldn’t have to go through “all this” alone. But everything changed when he said he was planning to propose to his boyfriend.
“For the first time with my parents, it was no longer ‘this is something we’ll work through and everything will be okay.’”
Weitz's mother mentioned that being married to another man was clearly prohibited in the Bible, and they couldn’t support him. For nine months prior to the wedding, Weitz and his parents worked with rabbis to “get on the same page.” Even then, his mother refused to attend the wedding ceremony, only attending the reception afterward.
Rabbi Steve Greenberg, the first Modern Orthodox Rabbi to come as gay in 1999 and the author of Wrestling With God and Men: Homosexuality and the Jewish Tradition, wasn’t surprised by the results in the study. Over the past eight-and-a-half years working with Eshel—an organization Greenberg founded to foster acceptance for LGBTQ Jews and their families in Orthodox communities—he’s seen a growing number of Orthodox families respond more positively to their children’s sexual identity.
Rabbi Greenberg believes the sheer number of gay Jews who are out contributes to further acceptance. “It’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t know a gay person that they respect and love,” he says in an interview.
In contrast to Weitz’s experience, Rabbi Greenberg also attributes the growing acceptance of queerness in Jewish communities to marriage equality in the U.S. “Same-sex marriage has shaped a cultural affirmation that eventually has made being gay reasonable. It has made it feel much more legitimate.”
At the end of the day, Rabbi Greenberg believes it goes against Jewish ideology to “demonize a human being that you care about who you see is decent.”
“You don’t demonize people for wanting love in their life.”
Besides, as Weitz explains, there’s nothing wrong with being gay: The infamous Leviticus quote from the Bible simply prohibits a man lying with another man, the way he does with a woman. It’s the act, itself, that’s wrong, not the person.
“That's really important for someone to hear, who is, you know, going home every single night and crying themselves to sleep because his teacher is saying that being gay is an abomination,” Weitz says.
While it can be challenging for Modern Orthodox parents to fully embrace their sons’ sexuality, for some, there is room within Biblical interpretation to find acceptance. That perspective, however, may need to be taught.
“If only a teacher could stand up and tell the class: 'If you're different, it’s okay, many people are different,'” Weitz continues. “'Down the the line, we'll work out exactly what that means.'”