Thursday’s knife attacks at Jerusalem’s gay pride parade have raised questions over the safety of sexual minorities in Israel, the Middle East’s most liberal nation. Is there a place for homosexuals in age-old religions?
Thursday’s March for Pride and Tolerance was going according to plan, with party music, rainbow flags and topless go-go boys filling Jerusalem’s barricaded streets, when an attacker entered the mass of revelers, stabbing and wounding six people at random.
Alarmingly, pride parade stabber Yishai Schlissel had been released from prison just three weeks ago after serving 10 years for committing the same crime at the same event in 2005.
Yishai Schlissel attacked the crowd gathered at the Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem, wounding six participants
The attack came days after Israeli authorities indicted two young Jewish activists for a recent arson attack that devastated a famous church, and just days after two Jewish protesters had barred entrances to the Dome of the Rock, shouting obscenities at Muslims. The attacks have raised fears that a radicalized and violent ultraconservative fringe might be growing from within the country’s hard-line religious nationalists, who have positioned themselves against other faiths and lifestyles.
Conflict between religion and homosexuality
With homophobes quoting passages of scripture as the basis for their views, gay men and lesbians often leave their religious backgrounds behind in search for a place where they can lead less conflicted lives. What is it, though, that the religious traditions that have delivered the basis for so much antagonism really say about same-sex relations?
A Jewish educator for over 30 years, the Boston-based rabbi Steven Greenberg calls for more pluralism and diversity within Orthodox Judaism, saying that all forms of human sexuality can be a means for deepening faith and communion with God. In fact, Greenberg insists that Judaism doesn’t call for any kind of animosity toward homosexuals at all.
“There’s no more conflict between sexuality and spirituality in Judaism than there is with money and spirituality, than there is with food and spirituality, than there is with love and spirituality – you name it,” Greenberg told DW.
“Every human endeavor can lead to constructive and destructive consequences,” he said. “If you grasp for a minute that sexuality has the potential to demean a human being – and that it also has the potential to raise them in the midst of sex to love, awareness, pleasure, joy, celebration and sacrifice – why would we assume that spirituality, by definition, is opposed to sexuality?”
First openly gay Orthodox rabbi
Greenberg’s frankness and openness have raised many eyebrows over the years. As the author of the award-winning “Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition,” he has toured the world and has made a name for himself as the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi.
Some have questioned his standing within the faith, saying that being gay and Orthodox is simply, well, not kosher. As the executive director of Eshel – an organization aimed at promoting the acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews in Orthodox communities – Greenberg tries to diffuse such views by getting his antagonists to empathize with him:
“There you are, having struggled half your life to find your own heart free to love and be loved, and you find yourself at the beginning of another process – not the end,” he said. “After coming out and all, you’ve still got to struggle through the many challenges of making a relationship work. So, you see, we’re not so different after all, gays and straights.”
Patriarchy’s the problem
Though an ever-growing number of countries are recognizing marriage equality, or at least civil unions, 75 nations deem homosexuality illegal, with eight countries, plus the territories in Syria and Iraq controlled by “Islamic State,” treating homosexual acts as crimes punishable by death – often with gruesome methods of carrying out the sentences: IS, for example, has thrown accused homosexuals from buildings for cheering crowds. And, even where homosexuality is not banned, there are often very public expressions of hatred toward gay men and and lesbians.
Imam Muhsin Hendricks is one of the world’s few outspokenly gay Muslim community leaders. In 1996, he established the mosque-cum-outreach center The Inner Circle – “a global Muslim community free from discrimination based on religion, sexual orientation and gender identity” – in Cape Town, South Africa.
“Some Muslims may want to live like this still is seventh-century Arabia, but it’s not,” Hendricks told DW. “If I can’t be part of their Islam, so be it.”
The South African imam says it is more important to live an authentic life than to keep running away from those who might wish him harm.
Imam Muhsin Hendricks says the Prophet Muhammad implicitly acknowledged and accepted homosexuals
“I would rather want to meet my creator knowing that I didn’t live a false life,” Hendricks said. “I’m prepared to die; I get death threats all the time. I even had a fatwa (religious decree) taken out against me, which means that I was officially taken out of the fold of Islam. But this has only created more interest in my work, so I’m grateful for that.” Hendricks said the South African Muslim Judicial Council had issued the fatwa.
“Throughout my journey, I learned that homosexuality was just the first avenue to address a lot of other injustices committed in the name of Islam,” Hendricks said. “I realized that I’d taken on something big: I’d taken on the patriarchy that sits behind Islam.
“Islam has become an elite club around the world – one with membership reserved for the traditional patriarchy only. If gender becomes fluid, then where does the patriarchy ground itself?”
‘Quran is not obsessed with gays’
Challenging the status quo of Islam could be a difficult task even in Hendricks’ native Cape Town, where attitudes toward diversity and inclusion have historically been quite liberal, even during South Africa’s apartheid regime. But Hendricks says he needs international support to keep his ministry growing, spreading the word that, according to his take on Islam, there is no conflict between the religion and same-sex relationship. For this continuing outreach against the odds, Hendricks received a grant from the Heinrich Böll Foundation, a German think tank associated with the Green Party.
“I grew up hearing my grandfather, who was also an imam, preaching from the pulpit that gay people would go to hell,” Hendricks said. “So, I thought there was no place of expression for sexuality in my life.
“But the Quran is not against homosexuality. Even scholars have begun to agree on that nowadays. The Quran is not obsessed with gays in the way that some of these imams seem to be obsessed with gays.
“In fact, what is mentioned in other sources is that even the prophet himself had men working for him in his household who had no interest in women whatsoever. So, our existence is acknowledged and even supported by the sayings of the prophet. If the prophet can have a gay servant, it means that he gives his blessing to that sexuality.”
Leading by example
Greenberg echoes Hendricks’ call for having a genuine existence away from the shadows in which so many homosexuals throughout the world have to hide in order to survive. He says that he can only be an example to others, adding that everyone’s set of circumstances and story are different.
“I don’t want to go to synagogue and lie about who I am, and I also don’t want to be a faceless gay man,” Greenberg said. “I also want to be who I am. I want to be Steve. I want to be a person who’s living out a Jewish committed life. And that’s something that I would wish for everybody.”
“There are real challenges ahead for gay relationships,” Greenberg said. “But I notice that I’m focused more and more on positive challenges: gay marriage, gay adoption, lesbian surrogacy, to name a few. And then there’s the greatest, most wonderful challenge, which is raising my daughter with my partner. Who thought 20 years ago that we would be able to do all this?”