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Elliot Leven

Bill Narvey

Leven vs Narvey: Orthodox Jewry and the anti-Bullying Manitoba Bill 18

By Elliot Leven with response by Bill Narvey May 14, 2013


Elliot Leven: Lubavitchers-From quaint to Troubling

I have always seen Chasidic Jews as quaint and harmless.  I appreciate their sincerity and I recognize that they play a role in preserving Jewish traditions that other streams of Judaism do not preserve.  I have found their odd customs, such as dressing like medieval Polish Christian noblemen, as slightly amusing but, again, harmless.

I now wonder if I should reconsider my views about Chasidim, or the “ultra-Orthodox” as they are sometimes called. My doubts stem from Bill 18.

Bill 18, for those who have not been following the news story, is the controversial “anti-bullying” bill proposed by the Manitoba government.  The most controversial part of the bill is the clause concerning gay-straight alliances (or GSAs).  The Bill would require all publicly-funded schools (which includes some but not all private schools) to allow GSAs, if students wish to start them. There is no requirement that schools take the initiative to form them.

GSAs are clubs created in some high schools by gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) students and their heterosexual allies.  Some of the students who are active in GSAs have been bullied. 
Others may be straight, but may have LGBT friends or relatives (even parents).  Some LGBT students in some schools are not interested in belonging to GSAs.  It varies from year to year and school to school.

In Winnipeg, some public high schools, Westgate Mennonite Collegiate, and Gray Academy have GSAs.

Some Christians in Steinbach have opposed Bill 18. Although they cite various reasons, the heart of the matter is that they believe homosexuality to be a sin, and they do not want GSAs in their schools.  Some federal Conservative politicians, like Vic Toews, have opposed the bill. 

Recently, a few non-Christian clergy, including Winnipeg’s Rabbi Avrohom Altein, have spoken publicly against Bill 18.

On the other hand, at least one Winnipeg Orthodox Rabbi (Ari Ellis), while acknowledging that Orthodox Judaism considers homosexual behaviour to be sinful, has come out in support of Bill 18.  Among other things, he has pointed out that there is a difference between sexual orientation (as we now understand it) and sexual behaviour.  The Torah, he notes, is silent about sexual orientation.

As a gay Jew, I understand Orthodox Judaism, even if I do not adhere to it.  The Orthodox believe that the Torah and Talmud represent the eternal, unchanging word of the Almighty, and that modern Jews are not free to rewrite the Torah and Talmud.  As such, regardless of what we may now understand about sexual orientation, and even if it turns out that sexual orientation is 100% genetic, the Torah and Talmud say what they say, and homosexual acts will always be sins.  The proper course of conduct for gay and lesbian Jews will always be to refrain from homosexual conduct (in reality, to remain chaste). Curiously, the Roman Catholic Church takes a more or less similar position. 

Of course, the Torah and Talmud do not mention GSAs.  Nor do they mention the medical condition of gender dysphoria (males who feel “trapped” in female bodies or vice versa), but gender dysphoria and discrimination against transgendered people is the subject for a future column.

I am saddened by the fact that Rabbi Altein has thrown in his lot with the opponents of Bill 18.  As Rabbi Ellis has illustrated, being an Orthodox Jew does not require one to oppose Bill 18. 
Furthermore, as the media have been too polite to remind Rabbi Altein, schools that wish to disregard Bill 18 are free to do so; they just have to decline government funding.  If Chabad Lubavitch wishes to operate a GSA-free school, it is welcome to do so, using Chabad Lubavitch money.

Rabbi Altein’s stance on Bill 18 has raised even more troubling questions for me.  The medical evidence is that the percentage of gay people in any population is more or less constant from age to age and place to place.  If two or three percent of the population is gay, then two or three percent of Chasidic Jewish children are gay.  Being born into a Chasidic community is not quaint and harmless for these children. On the contrary, it is cruel and soul-destroying.  It is cold comfort to these unlucky kids to tell them that everything will be alright as long as they always remain chaste.

The time has come for thoughtful Jews to ask themselves if Orthodox Judaism and modern concepts of human rights can be reconciled.  Modern Orthodox leaders, like Rabbi Ellis, have tried to find a compassionate way to square the circle.  Leaders like Rabbi Altein have not even done that much.

If we want to embrace Judaism, and we accept the idea that there is nothing immoral or unethical about being gay or lesbian, we must ask ourselves if the only solution is to embrace Conservative or Reform Judaism.  The Bill 18 controversy should force us to think hard about this issue.

Bill Narvey: Bullying Orthodox Jewry Undermines The Case for anti-Bullying Manitoba Bill 18 

Elliot Leven, is a successful lawyer, proud gay and known for his pro-gay rights advocacy  outside and within the Jewish community. 

By his latest WJR piece, Lubavitchers: from quaint to troubling, Leven seeks to convince the Winnipeg Jewish community to stand with him in supporting Manitoba’s  anti-bullying Bill 18 - Safe and Inclusive Schools and to join him in  telling Rabbi Altein, Lubavitchers, Chasids and Orthodox Jewry where to get off. 

So what’s got Leven so steamed?   In a nutshell, Rabbi Altein publically spoke out against Bill 18.  That is just too much for Leven’s self-righteous gay rights fixated sensibilities and metric of right and wrong.

First dealing with the proposed bill, it is the latest NDP government effort at social engineering. 

Bill 18 proposes to have publically funded schools adopt and enforce an anti-bullying, human rights  and diversity policy that promotes gender equality, anti-racism/bigotry, respect for all people irrespective of sexual orientation and further to allow students to establish school activities/organizations to that end.  Gay student organizations are called gay-straight alliances (GSA).

The general premise of Bill 18 seems fair enough as it accords with our society’s multicultural values.

The question Leven fails to address however, is whether Bill 18 fairly and  effectively addresses bullying issues in public schools?

Let’s briefly look at some of the actual provisions in the proposed Bill 18 found at:

“1.2(1)      In this Act, "bullying" is behavior that
(a) is intended to cause, or should be known [who gets to determine, “should”?] to cause, fear, intimidation, humiliation, distress or other forms of harm to another person's body, feelings, self-es

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.