Leading rabbis champion peer who called LGBTs ‘deviants’

In letter of support for Rabbi Yigal Levinstein, 300 nationalist-Orthodox leaders say homosexuality ‘contravenes human morality’

Elie Leshem is deputy editor of The Times of Israel.

Rabbi Shlomo Aviner at the dedication of a new kindergarten in the settlement of Beit El, on Wednesday, March 26, 2014. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Rabbi Shlomo Aviner at the dedication of a new kindergarten in the settlement of Beit El, on Wednesday, March 26, 2014. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

On the eve of a loaded Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem, some 300 religious Zionist rabbis signed a letter expressing support for a yeshiva head who called LGBT people “deviants” devoid of “the normalcy of life.”

“There is no room for legitimizing phenomena and behaviors that seek to glorify a way of life that contravenes human morality and the way of the Torah,” the signatories, including top educators and city rabbis, wrote in the letter, published Wednesday. “Our love for every Jew, and the obligation to treat every human being with respect, cannot be a pretext for distorting the halachic truth or ‘cutting corners’ when it comes to forbidden acts.”

They were responding to an outcry generated by Rabbi Yigal Levinstein, a co-head of a prestigious pre-army religious academy in the West Bank, who was filmed last week saying in a speech 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 added, “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.”

Rabbi Yigal Levinstein speaking at the 'Zion and Jerusalem' convention July 2016. (Screen capture: Youtube)
Rabbi Yigal Levinstein speaking at the ‘Zion and Jerusalem’ convention July 2016. (Screen capture: Youtube)

In their letter, the rabbis — among whom were Aryeh Stern and Shmuel Eliyahu, the chief rabbis of Jerusalem and Safed, respectively; and Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, the influential head of the Ateret Yerushalayim yeshiva – said that they wished to “voice support for every rabbi who expresses his halachic and moral opinion… without pandering or apology.”

They said that they represented a “silent majority, both religious and secular,” in Israel that is opposed to the LGBT lifestyle and activism.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the religious-nationalist Jewish Home party, was one of the Orthodox public figures who condemned Levinstein’s remarks. “This is not the way of religious Zionism,” he said this week. “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].”

One of the organizers of the letter came out against Bennett Wednesday, and accused him of betraying his constituency, telling the Ynet news site, “We find it hard to grasp how a political person, talented as he may be, takes it upon himself to repudiate the rabbis who for years shaped religious Zionism.”

Rabbi Benny Lau, a prominent religious-Zionist rabbi whose cousin David Lau is the chief rabbi of Israel, denounced Levinstein earlier this week.

“Who gave you permission to insult them? In the name of which Torah do you act like this?” he demanded in a video uploaded to Facebook.

Lau spoke of an incident two years ago when Levinstein addressed 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.”

Shira Banki, in a picture dated November 16, 2013, taken from her Facebook page.
Shira Banki, in a picture dated November 16, 2013, taken from her Facebook page.

The Israeli Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Association, known commonly as the Aguda, filed a police complaint against Levinstein for incitement.

The rabbis’ letter is sure to raise hackles among liberal Israelis, ahead of what promises to be an emotional Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem on Thursday afternoon. It will be the first in the capital since last year’s march, during which Yishai Schlissel, an ultra-Orthodox man, went on a stabbing spree, killing 16-year-old Shira Banki and wounding several others. Last week saw an outcry at the cancellation of Beersheba’s first-ever pride parade over threats of violence.

Aviner, one of the letter’s signatories, and Rabbi Tzvi Tau, who heads the elite Har Hamor yeshiva in Jerusalem, on Wednesday came out against the parade, according to a report in the Orthodox news site Srugim.

“‘Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: It is abomination,'” they said in a statement, quoting a verse in Leviticus that is often cited as evidence of God’s abhorrence of homosexuals. “We condemn the existence of an abomination parade in our holy city Jerusalem,” Aviner and Tau went on to say, adding that the parade was a “terrible desecration of God’s name.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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