24 Feb 2012
The Australian Jewish News Sydney edition
HOW does one reconcile iron-clad laws laid down in the Torah with the shifting moralities of any given age? Indeed, should one even try? When one’s deeply held religious convictions come into conflict with prevailing attitudes, preaching the word of God is branded by mainstream society as Taliban-style fundamentalism … racist, sexist, homophobic, even anti-semitic.
In some cases, as with the aforementioned Taliban or the Charedi extremists in Beit Shemesh, clearly a line has been crossed. In others, those holding such views maintain a dignified silence, recognising full well that their opinions are at odds with contemporary mores and that to voice them vociferously will fuel fires of hostility and hatred. At the very least, it’s recognised that if such views are to be expressed, they should be qualified with a diplomatic and respectful statement of tolerance: “I believe this, but insofar as you don’t seek to impose your views on me, I shan’t impose mine on you.” A case of ‘live and let live’ or indeed ‘live and let love’. How then to view the treatise penned by Rabbi Dr Shimon Cowen about the anti-bullying initiative of the Safe Schools Coalition Victoria (SSCV)?
On its website, SSCV urges teachers to ask themselves how they can help “celebrate diversity” in sexual preferences. In Rabbi Cowen’s eyes, the concepts of celebration and diversity are out of place when it comes to homosexuality, which he correctly describes as violating the Noahide laws underpinning the three monotheistic faiths.
To be sure, Rabbi Cowen does not support bullying in any form, nor does he encourage ostracising any young person who feels they are or might be gay. He emphasises that his is a message of compassion, but at the same time, of personal self-discipline in adhering to Old Testament values. He is, of course, entitled to his halachic view. But in practical terms, where does that leave a student bullied because they think they are, or are seen as being gay?
Ultimately, just as we expect every effort to be made to stamp out racism and anti-semitism in the schoolyard, so too we must ensure students are not abused or assaulted because of their sexuality.
Will specific initiatives targeting homophobia encourage a perception that being gay is “normative”? Very possibly. But only when it is accepted as a norm, will young gay students have nothing to fear from their peers.
The Torah is the timeless centrepiece of Judaism. Interpreted dynamically, its enduring message is one of humanity and compassion. Exposing a youngster to risk, and in some cases, placing their very lives in peril surely does not fit into that picture.