24 Feb 2012
The Australian Jewish News Sydney edition
Responding to Rabbi Dr Shimon Cowen’s controversial article on homosexual anti-bullying programs in schools, Rabbi Fred Morgan says his views on “normative” behaviour ignore the realities of the human condition.
MY impression of Rabbi Dr Shimon Cowen is that he is a gentle man. When he spoke from the bimah at Temple Beth Israel at his father Sir Zelman Cowen’s state funeral, despite Chabad strictures on their rabbis entering Progressive synagogues, he showed that he is also a compassionate man, someone who is able to appreciate what it means for each of us to be created in God’s image.
I am perplexed, therefore, how a caring individual like Rabbi Cowen can express views about homosexuality that are so hurtful and damaging, as he did recently in an article in the journal of the Australian Family Association. Unfortunately his views made the front page of the free broadsheet mx. The report in mx quoted a leading member of Aleph, Melbourne’s Jewish gay group, as saying that the rabbi’s views are “delusional”. It also quotes a press release from the Executive Council of Australian Jewry distancing Australian Jewry from Rabbi Cowen’s remarks.
The crux of the rabbi’s argument lies in the word “normative”, which he uses repeatedly in his article. For example, in rejecting the value of educating teachers about homosexuality as part of an anti-bullying campaign, he claims it is “using bullying as a pretext to teach all schoolchildren that homosexual conduct is equally normative with heterosexual conduct”. For Rabbi Cowen, what is “normative” really matters since it defines the style of life that a person should lead. There is a “norm”, and those who are homosexual do not fit it. Rather than basing the “norm” on observations of human behaviour, including the experience of homosexuals, the rabbi bases his “norm” on an ideological principle that, in his view, takes precedence over the realities of the human condition.
What precipitated Rabbi Cowen’s article? It seems to be the decision of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria and other bodies to seek to educate teachers in how to deal sensitively and compassionately with students in their classrooms who are becoming aware of their homosexuality. These students face ostracism and bullying because we still live in a predominantly homophobic society.
“Keshet”, meaning “rainbow”, is an American-based, Jewish-focused program that trains teachers to be aware of these issues in the classroom. A group has been set up in Melbourne to bring Keshet to Australia. Rabbi Cowen does not seem to believe that programs like Keshet should be used to train teachers in Jewish schools about how to give support to students who are struggling to come to terms with their sexual identity.
What Rabbi Cowen seems to overlook is that Keshet and similar programs are not about what is “normative”. They do not seek to lay down how people should behave. They are about reality – how people are in fact.
Since an appreciable percentage of the population is homosexual in fact, students who are becoming aware that they are or may be gay or lesbian need to be supported in that exploration as much as students who are exploring their sexuality as heterosexuals.
They need to be supported by teachers who are there not to declare what is “normative” and what is “abnormal”, but rather to offer support to all their students by recognising the differences among them, protecting them from prejudice and attack, and giving them confidence in expressing their deepest sense of self.