Gay Orthodox Jewish man's suicide doesn't tell us much about his faith
Reconciling religious and sexual identities
On April 28, Herschel Siegel, a 25-year-old Orthodox Jew from Atlanta, committed suicide. In retrospect, a March Instagram post by the openly gay young man struck many observers as predictive.
In it, he wrote about his “traumatic” memories regarding the Torah’s description of homosexual sex as to’evah (abomination). “(M)y very EXISTENCE as a gay, Jewish, Male was an abomination,” Siegel wrote. “And even decades later, that fear-based thought pattern erupted into my consciousness, at the most unexpected of times.” With apparently calculated timing, Siegel killed himself on the eve of the Shabbat when the famously relevant words from Leviticus — “Thou shalt not lie with a man as with a woman” — would be chanted in synagogue.
Siegel’s Instagram post was widely distributed, evoking disparate reactions. On one side were those who believed the suicide was directly attributable to Orthodox Judaism’s gender conservatism. In recent years, Siegel’s alma mater, Yeshiva University, had (successfully) fought all the way to the Supreme Court for the right to prohibit an LGBTQ student club on campus. A spokesman for Jewish Queer Youth stated, “(W)e can admit … that it is because of the community that we created that this kid could not find a future for himself and thought that it would perhaps be better off if he was not here.”
Those who knew Siegel more intimately, however, and were familiar with his mental health struggles over the years, repudiated any such assumption. In a Forward article, a gay Orthodox friend, Simon Italiaander, criticized the politicization of Siegel’s death, asserting that “Herschel’s family loved and accepted him unconditionally,” adding that he personally had “disclosed my sexual orientation to dozens of rabbis … and family members. And never, ever, did I receive anything but warmth.” Other persuasive accounts take the same line. So perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between.
Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between
By near-coincidence, in December 2022, Rabbi Katriel (Kenneth) Brander, American-Israeli president of Israel’s Orthodox Ohr Torah Stone network of yeshivas, published a landmark paper, titled “Finding a Home in Our Midst: Engaging and Welcoming Gay and Lesbian Jews Within the Orthodox Community.” (“Orthodox” here should not be confused with the Ultra-Orthodox, for whom the issue is altogether taboo.) The long and discursive essay combines an apologia on behalf of Orthodox Judaism’s past failures on the L/G file with a suggested roadmap for reconciliation through measures of social and ritual inclusion.
Brander begins with the frank admission that “we have left gay and lesbian Jews out of the communal fabric,” creating a clash between their spiritual and sexual identities. The resulting “suffocating environment,” he says, has fostered “low self-esteem, loneliness, and fear, pushing some to depression, self-harm, and most tragically, death by suicide.” The time has come, he says, to look for ways to confront the “disenfranchisement” L/G Jews face.
The other three branches of Judaism — Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist — have been there and done that. Many L/G Jews serve in their rabbinates. They all offer L/G Jews complete ritual equality, including, most contentiously, kiddushin, the sanctification rites of the marriage ceremony.
But Rabbi Brander states at the outset that the “ways” he has in mind for combatting disenfranchisement must be “halakhically appropriate.” Halakha is the body of laws and ordinances that have regulated ritual observance and conduct for Jews since biblical times. The more liberal branches were not so burdened. In L/G matters, they chose to privilege contemporary civil rights as their template for institutional practices over halakhic strictures deemed to be superannuated.
Rabbi Brander set himself a daunting task, to say the least. He claims it is possible to “make space for gay and lesbian Jews” without abandoning “our unyielding commitment to Halakha.” What would that “space” look like, though? How far does Halakha permit Orthodox communities to go? The devil is in the details, and the details in the Brander paper reflect a certain naiveté regarding the state of gender politics in our era.
Brander cites a 2010 Statement of Principles signed by over 250 prominent Orthodox rabbis and educators that set out protocols for dealing with “our brothers and sisters … who have a homosexual orientation.” Addressing synagogue membership, Jews with “same-sex attractions” should be fully welcome and eligible for all ritual privileges. But not if they are actually “openly practicing” homosexuals. And same-sex marriage is out of the question. If they are married civilly, they cannot be congratulated from the pulpit. But, Brander suggests, “anything short of celebrating the engagement or wedding of a same-sex couple should be deemed possible and worthy of consideration.” He urges conversation in the community on how milestones like this can be “acknowledged as transpiring even if they cannot be blessed.”
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“Blessed.” “Cannot.” Impasse. Non-political gays and lesbians may be willing to compromise in order to remain within the Orthodox fold, but activists will find Rabbi Brander’s attempt to square this rebarbative rights circle unacceptable. I know from personal experience in a non-Orthodox synagogue’s journey from “halakhically appropriate” rituals and accommodations to full marriage rights that activists will settle for nothing less than the official “blessing” of kiddushin.
For it is the blessing that officially elevates gays and lesbians from equality of human worth with heterosexuals to equality of cultural function; the blessing that affirms an existential shift in the Jewish family paradigm, one that is detached from biological complementarity in parenting; the blessing that implicitly assigns equal value to a union that is inherently fertile — and only contingently infertile — with a union that is inherently infertile, period.
The responses to Herschel Siegel’s untimely death demonstrate that it is possible to be an openly gay Orthodox Jew today, as it was not even 20 years ago, without sacrificing the loving embrace of family, educators and fellow community members. As they continue to grapple with LGBTQ issues, the Orthodox brain trust would do well to take the long view of Jewish history. Ridding our community institutions of dirty bathwater is admirable. Of babies, not so much.