Homosexuality in Classroom Discourse at an American Modern Orthodox High School

Jun. 11, 2011

Source: Journal of Jewish Education, Volume 77, Issue 2 June, 2011, pages 116 – 140


Over the past decade, the Modern Orthodox community has increasingly recognized that homosexuality requires a more adequate communal response than the denial that was once the norm. "A Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community”, released toward the middle of 2010 and signed by prominent Modern Orthodox communal leaders clearly acknowledges the existence of homosexuals within the community, recognizes the struggle that such individuals undergo as they try to live according to the halakhic tradition, and strongly condemns any actions that would hurt the feelings or deny the rights of people with homosexual orientations. The Statement expresses strong reservations about therapies aimed at changing one’s sexual orientation, affirms the right of individuals to refuse such therapies, and refuses to promote heterosexual marriage for homosexuals. At the same time, the Statement of Principles emphatically upholds the biblical and rabbinic injunctions against the physical expression of homosexuality, asserting that Jewish law “sees heterosexual marriage as the ideal model and sole legitimate outlet for human sexual expression.” While this approach might seem inadequate to those seeking a more robust response to the physical and emotional needs of homosexuals, the Statement is a far cry from the communal denial that was once the norm. In an article repeatedly quoted and reprinted in the 1970s, Rabbi Norman Lamm (1974), a former president of Yeshiva University, asserted that the scarcity of traditional rabbinic sources on homosexuality provides “sufficient evidence of the relative absence of this practice among Jews from ancient times down to the present” (p. 197).


Clearly such a major change, still very much in process, demands a rethinking of how Modern Orthodox Jewish schools educate their students about homosexuality. But to my knowledge, this is a field that remains completely unmapped in the research literature. As a way to raise some of the educational implications of dealing with the issue, I present and analyze in this article a class discussion about homosexuality that I observed at a Modern Orthodox high school in the spring of 1999. Although these data are clearly dated, I believe that the discourse sample and analysis that I present here can help to launch a crucial discussion and provide a useful baseline for further work in this area.

Updated: Aug. 02, 2011