Daniel Atwood, on Sunday, became the first openly gay rabbi of the Jewish Orthodox community.
Homosexuality has always been considered as a taboo in the Jewish Orthodox community. The issue has been a subject of contention within modern Jewish denominations and has led to debate and division. A gay rabbinical student who was denied ordination in New York was welcomed into the rabbinate in Jerusalem. This will hence, break the longstanding taboo against homosexuality in the Orthodox community.
Daniel Atwood was denied ordination by a liberal Orthodox seminary in New York. However, he became a rabbi under the auspices of an Orthodox rabbi here on Sunday. Daniel Landes, a prominent American-Israeli rabbi, granted semichah to daniel Atwood at the Jerusalem Theater on Sunday evening. Atwood, 27, was ordained alongside a mixed group of men and women. Furthermore, the ceremony was attended by more than 200 guests.
Despite the school previously saying that it would ordain Atwood, it had gone back on its word. Atwood was informed earlier this year that he would not be ordained after completing his studies at New York’s Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.
Landes thundered that “it is a perfect Torah only when and if it restores the soul. That’s what we need to work for.”
There has been a significant increase in empathy for LGBT Jews in recent years within the Orthodox community. However, the inclusion of the same has rarely reached the level of communal leadership. Furthermore, same-sex marriage is still universally prohibited. Atwood became engaged to another man last fall.
The Torah is perfect, restoring the soul
“I was told three years ago that my giving woman semichah would create chaos and damage them and their families and dumb-down Torah learning. The opposite has been the case,” Landes told attendees at the ordination ceremony. Landes, until recently was the longtime head of the co-ed, nondenominational Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.
“Here’s the real question. Is our Torah and halachic system so weak and devoid of resources that it cannot be challenged by a new situation?” Citing the verse “The Torah is perfect, restoring the soul,” he added.
In 2006, Landes ordained eight Orthodox women as rabbis in a ceremony here. The ordination program is part of Yashrut, an organization he heads that aims to build “civil discourse through theology of integrity, justice, and tolerance.”
“They are demanding a place and I think that having a spiritual leadership guide along is important.”
Atwood was seen smiling throughout the ceremony and also dancing with Landes and his fellow ordainees. “I feel very excited to be receiving semichah and very grateful to Rabbi Landes and Yashrut for taking me on,” he said. However, his joy was tempered by a little sadness to not be with the cohort and teachers that he learned with for many years at YCT.”
Acceptance of homosexuality
The Chovevei Torah had initially welcomed Atwood with full knowledge of his orientation. However, yeshiva’s dean told that a recent, unspecified event caused a reevaluation of the decision to grant him ordination.
“He came out to us in the end of his first year and we were fully prepared to give him semichah until certain circumstances arose over a few months ago,” Linzer told JTA last month. “Because this is such a sensitive issue, it took us a few months to come to the decision that I came to. I was trying to figure out if there was a possible way forward. I came to the conclusion there was not.” He acknowledged that the process of denying Atwood ordination “was not handled well.”
Atwood’s fiancé, Judah Gavant, told JTA that he is very proud of both his partner and “our whole community”.
Atwood’s ordination was part of a process of moving things forward. A step to making a Jewish world that is available to more people that want to be a part of it.
Landes described Atwood as a “gift” who would be able to provide guidance to an “underserved” Orthodox gay community. “He’s who we want out there” working with the gay population, Landes said. “You need somebody on your side sometimes.”
The growth is slow, so is the acceptance. However, the ordination of Daniel Atwood is the new ray of hope for the community. The unacceptance of homosexuality in Judaism goes way back in history. Hence, overnight acceptance or change can’t be expected. But that doesn’t mean that change is impossible.