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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-esteem, reputation or property…”

1.2(2)      Bullying
(a) characteristically takes place in a context of a real or perceived [by whom?] power imbalance between the people involved and is typically, but need not be, repeated behavior;
(c) may take place
(i) by any form of expression, including written, verbal or physical, or
(ii) by …any form of electronic communication ie. cyberbullying ….’

(b.4) [Public Schools] establish a written policy concerning respect for human diversity, and ensure that the policy is implemented in each school in the school division or school district;

41(1.8)     A respect from human diversity policy must accommodate pupils who want to establish and lead activities and organizations that
(a) promote…..
(iv) the awareness and understanding of, and respect for, people of all sexual orientations and gender identities; and
(b) use the name "gay-straight alliance" or any other name that is consistent with the promotion of a positive school environment that is inclusive and accepting of all pupils.

Exercising  just a little common sense reveals this proposed legislation is badly flawed.

First, Bill 18 provides no objective criteria to define bullying. 

Other than dealing with obvious physical attacks, Bill 18 in calling on schools to deal with and mete out punishments for bullying,  appears to dictate that only the sensibilities of the one who claims to have been distressed, offended, humiliated or had their self-esteem bruised, is  relevant in judging whether an accusation of bullying is justified. 

This one sided subjective stacked against the “other” definition opens the door to all sorts of abuses. 

Several include ignoring the accused bully’s explanation that  their words are not maliciously biased,  the accuser being hypersensitive, is given to misconstruing words as biased and bullying and an accuser, holding a grudge, might use a false bullying accusation to get even.

Secondly, it is clear that Bill 18, if enacted, creates a real risk of infringing the rights and freedoms of those who for speaking their minds, risk being accused of bullying.  

Some if not many, who may hold honest, religious, secularly reasoned and/or bias free views that disagree in some respect with generally articulated  public school policy or  student organizations’ overall views, could be silenced, feeling a real risk that speaking their minds or establishing their own organization, could expose them to false charges of bullying and adverse consequences therefor imposed by the school.

If Leven had  viewed Bill 18 through his legal eyes, he would have seen that it is so deeply flawed, that irrespective of where one stands on gay rights, there are plenty of good reasons to oppose Bill 18 and to tell the government to go back to the drawing boards.

That said,  society is already against  bullying and public schools, already being keenly sensitive to  multicultural values and possessed of authority to ensure adherence to those values, one is moved to ask, what need is there for Bill 18?

Leven however, only looks at Bill 18,  through blinkered  pro-gay rights partisan eyes to passionately support it,  largely it seems  because of Bill 18’s specific reference to gays and their rights.  One wonders with Bill 18’s special attention to gays and GRS’s, whether Bill 18 was conjured up at the insistence of the gay rights lobby.

Leven’s attack on Rabbi Altein for his opposition to Bill 18,  mockingly begins with relating his prior impressions of the Orthodox, as being quaint, and harmless, but now sees the Orthodox as harmful. 

Leven’s criticisms of Rabbi Altein for his religious belief that homosexuality is a sin, drip with sarcasm.  Leven piles on, shedding crocodile tears for the suffering he imagines homosexual children of Orthodox families will have to endure throughout their lives. 

With a palpable sense of shadenfreude, Leven sneers “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.” 

Leven’s final salvo is to suggest that because Orthodox Jewish beliefs are irreconcilable with his modern view that homosexuality is both moral and ethical,  Jews should shun or leave Orthodox Judaism and embrace Conservative or Reform Judaism. 

Leven, on a role, also takes swipes at the Catholic Church for sharing Orthodox Judaic views on homosexuality and at the good people of Steinbach whose various reasons for objecting to Bill 18, Leven claims  all boil down to their religious belief that homosexuality is a sin.   That religious view sure does outrage Leven.

Leven is however, OK with Orthodox Rabbi Ellis who like Rabbi Altein apparently believes homosexuality, at least the sex part, is sinful.  What distinguishes the two Rabbis however, is that for reasons Leven leaves unstated, Rabbi Ellis supports Bill 18.

That sure suggests that Leven really doesn’t give a damn if an Orthodox Rabbi believes homosexuality is a sin, so long as that Rabbi supports or at least doesn’t oppose Bill 18 and Leven’s gay rights views and agenda.

The bottom line is that Leven submits that on the issue of gay rights and Bill 18 in particular,  Jewish community views should conform to his own, which he argues are the only moral, ethical and acceptable views. 

What comes through Leven’s piece is that he expects tolerance, respect and hopefully acceptance of his views on gay rights and support of Bill 18,  while according no tolerance and respect for  those opposed and he angrily sees Rabbi Altein’s (and others’) religious views on homosexuality, as a personal attack on his gay being. 

Leven by his own words thus reveals himself to lack self-awareness that he is a consummate hypocrite. 
Underscoring his hypocrisy is the fact that Leven in his  support for the proposed anti-bullying Bill 18,  has himself resorted to bullying tactics in excoriating Rabbi Altein, the Lubavitchers, Chasids and the Orthodox Jewish community for having dared to publically oppose Bill 18.

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