The chief rabbi’s LGBT report shows that culture wars can be overcome | Naomi Alderman

Ephraim Mirvis knows that the only way to change reactionary attitudes is by talking, not shouting. More power to him

This week the UK’s chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, along with the charity KeshetUK, released a report on how Orthodox Jewish schools should relate to LGBT+ children. Surprise: it’s excellent. It’s the first such guidance to be issued by any chief rabbi in the world, and will probably become a template for tackling gender and sexual identity in religious communities – which, if you’ve followed recent stories about Orthodox Jews, may be a pleasant shock.

LGBT+ issues are a faultline in the Orthodox Jewish world – as they are in many faith communities. A rabbi was censured last year for suggesting that Orthodox Jews had anything to learn from increasing compassion towards LGBT+ people in the outside world. A trans woman from the ultra-Orthodox community was denied access to her children because the judge accepted they would be bullied if they so much as met up with their trans parent. Ultra-Orthodox schools censor even the word homosexual from textbooks.

It has become a shouting match between two angry, upset groups. Jewish LGBT+ people understandably want to be treated with respect, to feel welcomed and loved. Orthodox Jewish leadership has seemed helpless, asking: the Jewish law is what it is, so what can we do? It looked intractable.

I was moved to write my novel Disobedience – about a lesbian relationship between two Orthodox Jewish women – by terrible stories I’d heard. I knew a woman who was thrown out of her seminary when it was discovered she was lesbian. I heard from a gay man who fearfully came out to his rabbi. The rabbi responded that if he didn’t marry a woman he would be “completing Hitler’s work”. I’ve walked out of a sermon where the rabbi condemned homosexuality. I thought walking out was all one could do; I didn’t think the will to change was there.

So it’s inspiring that two courageous organisations, KeshetUK and the Office of the Chief Rabbi, have worked to heal the rift. They’ll both be criticised – for some, it won’t go far enough; for others, it’ll seem much too far. Which probably means they’ve got it about right.

The report is clever and pragmatic. It could have been sidetracked by Torah verses about homosexuality, or Talmudic attitudes to transgender people. That would have been a mistake: the socially progressive may long for conservative religious people to agree with them about precise definitions or attitudes towards different genders and sexualities – but they simply won’t.

Instead, this report speaks the language of religious people. It talks about the prohibition on bullying in Judaism: humiliating someone is considered as serious as murder. It discusses the Jewish obligation to do anything to save a life in the context of high rates of suicide among LGBT+ people. It reminds readers that Judaism considers Leviticus’s injunction to “love your neighbour as yourself” the most important principle of the Torah. Essentially, it says the very obvious but very important thing: whether or not you think the Torah forbids gay sex, you’re still obliged to be kind, thoughtful and compassionate to all people.

This is how real change happens. Not by trying to strip people of the beliefs and practices woven through their lives but by easing those beliefs and practices into a less hurtful shape. By learning to speak the language even of those who hold different, sometimes offensive views.

It often seems – in politics and in social activism – that the language of compromise has been forgotten. Warring groups tear strips off each other on social media, focusing more on tiny patches of discord than vast areas of agreement. Any poorly worded sentence can be jumped on as evidence of ideological impurity. This document could well be a template for the wider world, not just faith groups. You can’t expect everyone else to agree with you on your precise definition of “woman”, or indeed “Brexit”; you can’t make windows into their souls and demand perfect beliefs. What you can do is ask to be treated well, to be spoken to kindly, for bullying tactics to be off the table.

I haven’t always been a fan of Mirvis – I’ve written critically about his wishy-washy stance on women’s issues. But I have to applaud this. One might imagine that beleaguered British Jews have had only one issue on their minds during the past few weeks. I feel proud of the community I come from that, during uproar and distress, hardworking and thoughtful people have carved out this patch of compassion, pragmatism, peace and good sense.

• Naomi Alderman is an author


Naomi Alderman

The GuardianTramp

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