Israeli cabinet ministers on Monday condemned remarks by a prominent religious-Zionist rabbi who referred to homosexuals as “deviants.”
Last week, Rabbi Yigal Levinstein, who teaches at a post-army yeshiva academy in the West Bank settlement of Eli, was filmed saying in an address to a Jewish law convention that “under the framework of pluralism, soldiers and officers are taught to refer to [LGBT people] as ‘proud,’ but I don’t dare call them that… ‘deviants’ is what I call them,” he said.
Levinstein’s speech — which also referred to Reform Jewry as an offshoot of Christianity — sparked a firestorm, with politicians, other rabbis, and former students rushing to condemn his stance.
On Monday, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan of the Likud party and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the religious nationalist Jewish Home party, joined the fray.
“This is not the way of religious Zionism,” Bennett said. “Jewish law was meant to establish what is forbidden and what is permitted. It was not meant to be a divisive tool to mark people and communities. You cannot call an entire community derogatory names and hide behind [Jewish law].
“It is true, there are clear, unquestionable prohibitions in the Torah,” he added. “However, we do not remove from our midst everyone who fails to uphold a commandment in the Torah. That is not our way.”
Erdan linked Levinstein’s comments to the gay pride parade in Jerusalem, scheduled for Thursday.
“How dangerous these comments are,” he said. “How cautious we must be, in order not to plant any ideas in the head of some crazy zealot.”
Erdan was alluding to the murder of 16-year-old Shira Banki at last year’s parade in the capital. The killer, Yishai Schlissel, an ultra-Orthodox Jew who had just been released from prison for a nearly identical crime, has since been sentenced to life.
“A year ago, I dismissed officers who were responsible for the security failures at the march. But for the parents and loved ones of Shira Banki, it is too late,” continued Erdan. “Let us not lose ourselves. Let’s respect every person, their choices, identity, beliefs. I believe that this is also the role of rabbis. This is the Judaism in whose light I follow.”
The Israeli Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Association, known commonly as the Aguda, filed a police complaint on Sunday against Levinstein for incitement.
In a video of his lecture, Levinstein could be seen stating: “There is a crazy movement of people who have simply lost the normalcy of life. This group is making the state crazy and is infiltrating the army with all its might. Nobody dares to open his mouth or make a sound against them. In the army training camp they gave lectures on deviancy.”
He also spoke out harshly against those who seek to teach pluralism as compatible with Torah values.
Levinstein is affiliated with the Bnei David yeshiva in the West Bank settlement of Eli, north of Ramallah. The one-year yeshiva program combines traditional Torah learning with preparation for army service. Bnei David was the first pre-army training program of its kind, and is still one of the most prestigious.
In the same speech Levinstein also claimed that Reform Judaism is a form of Christianity.
Ramat Gan Rabbi Yaakov Ariel responded Sunday to Levinstein’s comments. Though he conceded that Levinstein may have used too-blunt language, he agreed with the basic message.
Homosexuals are “disabled, suffering from real problems that must be cured through psychological treatment and medication,” the Ynet news site reported him as saying.
Ariel added that “a normal family is a father, mother and children. An abnormal family is a family that isn’t proper and correct. It has psychological problems.”
Rabbi Benny Lau, another religious Zionist rabbi, whose cousin David Lau is the chief rabbi of Israel, denounced Levinstein.
“Who gave you permission to insult them? In the name of which Torah do you act like this?” he said in a video uploaded to Facebook.
Lau spoke of an incident two years ago when Levinstein spoke to students at Jerusalem’s Himmelfarb boys’ high school and mockingly compared gay people to animals. Lau recounted that “there was a student there at the back who ran out of the hall at the moment that you told your terrible joke. He intended to kill himself. They prevented him. One year ago… the same student said that he heard you making fun of him and he wanted to kill himself again.”
Many former students of Levinstein’s have written harshly against him on Facebook, including some who have come out since leaving his yeshiva.
Last week saw an outcry at the cancellation of Beersheba’s first-ever pride parade, and the appointment of Rabbi Col. Eyal Karim as head of the military rabbinate, despite his having made statements that many interpreted as sexist, homophobic and racist.