Lesbian actor and Orthodox rabbi address the elephant in the room

When Diane Flacks found out her cool, artsy friend from high school is now an Orthodox Rabbi living in Jerusalem, she was surprised to discover he wanted her opinion - as an atheist lesbian - to help him reconcile views on religion and sexuality.
JERUSALEM, ISRAEL - Pride parade in Jerusalem on August 3, 2017 (Lior Mizrahi /Getty Images)

"This is the borderline of being modern and being Orthodox. There is the desire to be open and accommodating and there is my commitment to Orthodox Judaism and Torah and Halakha and how does that all work?" says Rabbi David Debow.

Rabbi David Debow and Diane Flacks

Rabbi David Debow lives in Jerusalem. He struggles to reconcile his Orthodox Jewish tradition with the broader social acceptance of the LGBTQ community.  And while he strongly believes you just can't change the law of the Torah...he feels compelled to face that contradiction head on.

Maybe part of the reason for that is that one of his oldest friends is a lesbian.  And that's exactly who Rabbi David reached out to as he sought a deeper understanding. His friend is Canadian comedian, playwright, columnist and actor Diane Flacks.  They went to Hebrew school together in Toronto.

High school days - David is sitting on the bench second from left and Diane is right beside him in the plaid shirt.

Diane and Rabbi David began a written correspondence about the gulf between them - their sexuality, their values, and their beliefs - and about how they might find common ground.

They recently brought their conversation into our Tapestry studio in Toronto.

Here is a partial transcript of their conversation. 

Diane: You see intolerance to homosexuality as kind of anti-social justice, anti-Jewish in a way, right?

Rabbi David: I see suffering.

Diane: Yeah.

Rabbi David: I see people suffering and that hurts.

Diane: And we can equate it kind of with being Jewish or with anti-Semitism in a somewhat of a way socially. Yeah?

Rabbi David: Sure. I mean Rabbi Lord Sacks said at one point that I can never forget that the Jews and the homosexuals were there in the camps together and that that is something that has to be remembered in terms of our approach to homosexuality. That we can't be party to bigotry and hatred and that sort of thing.

Diane: Right. So how do  you reconcile what is the other thing that you feel?

Rabbi David: So I am an Orthodox Jew and I am bound by what the Torah says and how it's interpreted through law. And in there in the Book of Leviticus it says pretty clearly that homosexuality is forbidden and in the books of Halakha,  their rabbinic decisors have said that lesbian activity is also forbidden and that -

Diane: I thought we had a pass. I thought nobody cared about women. Wait a minute!

Diane Flacks

Diane: I guess my question is how does whoever's hand I hold, whoever I have sex with, or have a family with, affect you in any way?

Rabbi David: It's not about what I think should happen in the world or in the legislature or in this society. I believe in a democratic society - that people should not be discriminated against in terms of sexual orientation or anything else. I think that you are free to make that choice. And Halakhic Judaism has nothing to say about it.

…. I'm not here to say what you can and cannot do.

Diane: I hear you. But I have to say that when religions, which are so powerful, approve of a kind of intolerance,  it gives tacit approval to those people who agree, to be, in my view, hateful. And you're not hateful. I'm not saying that your religion is hateful. I'm just saying that there are followers who are given that approval - they're given that permission. Whether you mean to or not.

Rabbi David Debow attending the Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem with his daughter Ariella.

Diane: And then I said, 'Would you go to Jerusalem Pride'? And I remember you said to me, 'Did they have to do it in Jerusalem? They couldn't just do it in Tel Aviv?' And I thought this is one of the things that we will never be able to accept about each other.

Rabbi David: Which is?

Diane: Which is - yes they should do it in Jerusalem! They should do it in Jerusalem because…

Rabbi David: Not only have I come understand Diane -

Diane: Well now I see that!

Rabbi David:  - that it has to happen in Jerusalem, I go the next year and I take my 10-year-old daughter. And she's scared. And I say there's nothing to be scared about. And she says 'Daddy it was more loving than I understood.' And they spoke up there and they spoke about the rabbis in ways that weren't angry. And we sent you a picture with a flag together.


Rabbi David: I don't want to be on the wrong side of this.

Diane: Right.

Rabbi David: It will continue to be a prohibition in my books and I want to communicate to you how that can be true and it doesn't mean hatred.

Click LISTEN above to hear their entire conversation.

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