Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office [CC BY 2.0] via Wikimedia
The British Parliament passed controversial new guidelines on March 27, requiring all schools to teach children about homosexuality and transgenderism (known as “LGBT”) beginning next year, but UK Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis preceded the law with his stamp of approval in an LGBT guide published last September.
While pre-existing laws mandated equality for LGBT students, the new law on Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) requires teachers — including those in religious Jewish schools — to teach about non-normative sexual behavior, which is forbidden by Jewish law, in a tolerant and supportive manner. The new law will come into effect next year, but the government is encouraging schools to start teaching LGBT as early as this September.
Surprisingly, Chief Rabbi Mirvis rolled out his own new policies for schools under his authority ahead of the law, setting new precedent and opening the door to RSE’s acceptance.
In his new guidelines entitled “The Wellbeing of LGBT+ Pupils: A Guide for Orthodox Jewish Schools,” which was created together with the Jewish gay activist group Keshet UK and can be read here, Rabbi Mirvis instituted new policies to have religious Jewish school staff introduce students to homosexuality and transgenderism during their formative school years.
The guide says its aim is “robust behaviour policies alongside wider school work to integrate understanding and awareness about LGBT+ experiences.” It updated the Orthodox Jewish school policies, calling for “safeguarding policies” that include “an equality statement that explicitly references LGBT+ people.” The new guidelines mandate that “all school services, including Rabbis, school nurses, counsellors and psychologists should be trained in LGBT+ well being and safety principles and vocabulary and where relevant have information and resources on LGBT+ mental and sexual health. Pastoral leads and heads of year should make all pupils aware that they can access the above services.”
Compounding the policy of exposing easily influenced students to sexual behavior that is forbidden by Judaism, the guidelines explicitly oppose referring students who are struggling with their sexual identity to any therapy meant to help them achieve normative sexuality as defined by Jewish law.
In such cases of students “struggling to understand their identity and reconcile it with their Judaism,” the guidelines instead prescribe referrals to “non-directive, person-centred counselling or psychotherapy.” In other words, the guide requires a “non-directive” approach that does not “direct” or aid religious Jews in overcoming their sexual impulses and observing Jewish law.
The guide even encourages religious school staff to tell students who are unsure of their sexual identity, but who do not use the word “trans,” to do as follows: “If they don’t use that language, you can offer it to them for example, ‘Have you heard of the term “transgender” before?’” adding a razor-thin caveat that they “avoid imposing it on them.”
In this way, Rabbi Mirvis’ new policy has effectively implemented compulsory LGBT education in religious Jewish schools. Now the new RSE law will require that all schools teach about LGBT, including the Chinuch UK Haredi Jewish school system.
“A Kosher stamp”
The new precedent set by Rabbi Mirvis has garnered positive attention and support in the British media, but criticism in much of the Jewish religious world.
Rabbi Yaron Reuven, an Israeli-born rabbi in the U.S. who is popular for his kiruv (Jewish outreach) work, spoke to The Jerusalem Herald about the dire implications of Rabbi Mirvis’ guidelines. He noted they give an impression that Judaism supports homosexuality and transgenderism, despite the religion’s explicit prohibitions against such behavior.
“The problem is [Mirvis’] position and perceived status puts a kosher stamp on his actions, thereby making what the Torah forbids appear as if it is now a mitzvah (commandment),” said Rabbi Reuven. Not mincing any words, he added, “The fact that he is a Chief Rabbi makes this 100 times more dangerous than the countless locals Rabbis that have sold their souls to the devil.”
Rabbi Reuven noted that from the response he has received to his criticism of Rabbi Mirvis’ guidelines, he has seen that “the majority of people are baffled and distraught by this.”
In the UK, there has been somewhat low-key criticism of the guide. In a critique of it, British religious author Rabbi Mordechai Rose said the aim of the guidelines to care for homosexual and transgender students “might even be considered praiseworthy,” even while he condemned the partnership with Keshet UK and possible harm from the guide.
A group of UK Haredi rabbis and religious judges (dayanim) issued a letter last October that also largely supported the goals of Rabbi Mirvis’ guidelines, making do with a clarification. They backed the guide’s call to be supportive of “all pupils, regardless of their lifestyle choices (relationships),” even while warning that the new policy risks confusing Jews into thinking homosexual relationships are not forbidden by Jewish law.
In response to the letter, Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, Chief Rabbi of the Orthodox Rabbinical Courts in Jerusalem, took issue with the limited criticism in a public letter of his own. In it, he opposed the idea of having Jewish religious schools attended by students “who conduct themselves in an abominable manner contravening Torah law... not to mention the idea of honoring and protecting them.” He warned this acceptance and approval may influence other students to transgress the Torah.
Rabbi Sternbuch, who was himself born in London, called on British rabbis to oppose the UK governmental guidelines requiring acceptance of LGBT, and to “be willing to go to prison rather than abandoning our sons and daughters.” He added that “according to the basic tenets of any democracy every citizen has the right to educate his children in accordance with his belief.”
“I consider the material and spiritual future of British Jewry to be in danger,” warned the rabbi, adding that the guidelines set a precedent that “is likely to spread to Europe, America and Eretz Yisroel G-d forbid.”
This is not Rabbi Mirvis’ first controversial decision on Jewish education; back in 2015 he supported teaching Islam in Jewish schools following new governmental regulations. Leading Jewish rabbinic authorities throughout the centuries have ruled that Islam falls within the category of idolatry according to Jewish law.