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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Orthodoxy and Homosexuality

One of the great challenges of modernity for Jewish communities is navigating our relationship with the larger secular society in which we participate. The advancement of gay rights presents a particularly complex dilemma in this regard. While there have been numerous responses to variant specific issues within this topic, most responses have been of an ad hoc nature, focused on one particular aspect of the problem without consideration for its overall multi-dimensional nature. My goal in this paper is to examine this multi-dimensional character and identify the various battles that challenge us within this topic. It is not my intent to give solutions or even specific policy recommendations but rather to simply identify the issues in a more comprehensive manner. My ultimate hope is that this will help motivate our community to approach the matter in a holistic way confronting each sub-concern as part of an overall policy.

We can label the sub-topics as follows:


Orthodox Communal

Jewish Communal

General Society

Each of these sub-topics is not inherently independent and a concern found within one sub-topic may have applications to other sub-topics as well. In fact, individuals may feel that an issue which I have categorized within one sub-topic is actually better assigned to another one. I have no problem with this; I do not feel eternally bound by any of these definitions. The sole purpose of this presentation is to enable an orderly and encompassing discussion of the issue in its totality. If it allows for an initial discussion of this nature, it has served its purpose.


The first question that we must address is how we are to respond or relate to the gay individual. Before answering this question, though, we must first identify that there are two possible meanings to the word “gay” in this context:

A) a person who identifies himself/herself as having an attraction to the same-sex;

B) a person who is involved in same-sex sexual activities.

Each of these definitions demands a somewhat different response.

A) In regard to the individual who is simply using this term to identify that he/she is attracted to members of the same-sex, on the surface it would seem that our response should be no different than our response to any person with desires that could lead one to violate halacha – namely our response to everyone. All individuals possess drives that could lead them to transgress. These individuals who define themselves as gay, it would seem, should be seen no differently and thus should be related to in a manner that is similar to the way we treat all others. The fact is, though, that there are aspects of this drive which do distinguish it and, as such, some unique considerations may indeed.. As a base, though, it should be acknowledged that possession of same-sex attraction in itself should not be seen in the same light as transgression.

That said, let’s look at some of the special considerations that arise in this case. In the first place, there are individuals who have an adverse or uncomfortable response to individuals who simply identify themselves as having this drive. Many would contend that one of our goals should thus be to educate people to overcome this negative feeling – and I agree this should be a clear cut directive within our community. The fact is, though, that some of the reasons for this uncomfortableness emerge from value-determinants within the Torah community that cannot be ignored and which must be considered in this policy process. The Torah society, in many ways, is structured to limit or direct the role of sexuality in our personal and social relationships and connections. This structure is challenged by the reality of the person with same-sex attraction. The very identification of oneself in this manner presents therefore valid questions. These questions lead us into the more general issue of how we are to integrate such an individual into our community, which we will discuss more below. At this juncture, it is just important to recognize that, as much as we may wish to state that those who possess this drive should be seen as no different from others with alternate drives that can equally lead to transgression, this case does, in many ways, present unique challenges. For example, how is a person who identifies himself as having same-sex attractions going to be integrated into a yeshiva dorm? Within the Torah perspective, we can also ask if one’s sexual preferences should even be something that is openly communicated or should it be a private matter shared with others only on a need to know basis? While there are strong reasons to be welcoming to the gay individual, as defined in this context, the complexity of this issue cannot be ignored.

Another consideration that arises in our relationship to the individual who identifies as gay is our halachic obligation to assist others in avoiding aveirot. In this regard, the nature of this drive yields further complications in that the same-sex attraction drive, if defined as such, would seem to have no halachically permitted purpose. In that one of the most significant Torah methods for dealing with our drives is by directing them to find fulfillment in a halachically acceptable manner, the seeming incompatibility of this approach in regard to responding to this drive does present a difficulty. One approach is to assist the individual in attempting to transform the drive into a heterosexual one which would allow for the potential of a halachically acceptable, even commendable, manner of fulfillment. The aversion of many individuals towards this suggestion, though, must be noted. We can suggest or advise but imposition may yield further problems. In addition, attempting to modify and/or apply this commonly relied upon route should not bar us from finding other ways of responding to this issue. We must try and assist such individuals in their attempt to follow Torah and finding ways to help individuals sublimate their sexual drive must be on the agenda.

B) On the surface, how we respond to one who actually transgresses the laws against homosexual behaviour should be similar to how we respond to other transgressors. In our world where we are generally welcoming towards transgressors, even individuals who are mechaleleiShabbat, the one who transgresses these laws, prima facie, should be seen no differently. An issue, though, may be whether we define this law as a chok or mishpat sichliya. If the latter, we may not be so welcoming in the same way we would not be as welcoming to a thief or murderer, assuming, of course, that how we treat a transgressor may differ based upon this distinction. There are also other factors that have to be considered that may mitigate against a blanket statement of this nature.

The unique societal moral challenge that envelops this issue must be acknowledged. Not only do individuals define themselves through this transgression but there is also a general social milieu which considers those who challenge this lifestyle to be the ones who are morally weak. Given this, as much as we may wish to be welcoming to transgressors, our tolerance of the individual cannot be perceived as deviating from the Torah stand towards these activities. The one who drives to shul on Shabbat knows and accepts that Orthodoxy does not sanction this activity albeit that this individual is still treated warmly within the Orthodox synagogue. It may be more difficult to be welcoming when the individual who is being welcomed not only may think that the Orthodox position is quaint, no longer really applies or is archaic but further may believe that it is just plain wrong.

As an extension of this, it must be recognized that no demonstration of this transgression can be tolerated within the confines of the Orthodox communal structure. There would be a distinction made between the individual who eats non-kosher food and one who brings this non-kosher food into the synagogue. Similarly, the gay individual involved in a same-sex relationship may still be welcomed into a shul but it would be an entirely different matter if this person would wish his/her relationship to be publicly acknowledged in the shul environment or even for this person to openly demonstrate this relationship in this environment. That we cannot tolerate.

Overall we can contend that we must be welcoming, yet there are many issues involved in bringing this goal to fruition in this regard. We have to further contemplate these various issues to ensure that our welcoming does not give the impression that we are not loyal to Torah.

Orthodox Communal

As noted above, there are certain aspects of the Orthodox community -- some structural, some conceptual – that present certain problems in dealing with this issue. These items must be analyzed to see how they are to be applied within this context.

Torah responds to the reality of the sexual drive by attempting to limit its force through a societal structure that allows for intermingling between the sexes only under certain guidelines and parameters.

The Torah method of meeting the challenge of applying our sexual drive correctly would seem not to be to ignore it, nor to project the idea that a truly holy person would not have this drive, but rather by accepting the drive’s existence and force and undertaking methods by which to limit its force and the opportunity for transgression. The separation of the sexes is an important part of this program. This method of assisting us in controlling our sexual drive is obviously not available to individuals with same-sex attraction. In fact, the very separation of the sexes may further foster this drive. While obviously a most difficulty challenge, in responding to this issue we must consider how the Orthodox community can respond structurally to this problem.

The community’s conceptual focus on the importance of marriage may also present an issue that must be considered within this context. While there can be no doubt that the value of a marital relationship is most significant within Torah, an overriding presentation of this value presents a challenge within this context. There may be pressure on the gay individual to date when such dating is really inappropriate. Entering into a marital relationship lacking in sexual attraction has the potential to be very problematic and is not fair to the heterosexual mate. The simple solution is obviously to lessen the pressure on gay individuals to search for a spouse. To do so, though, demands of the community to define, for both men and women, a potential to live full lives even without marriage. This, though, must still be done without challenging the inherent value of marriage. We must be able to present to such an individual the potential to live a meaningful Torah life without marriage while, at the same time, not negating the value of marriage in general.

Another example of the problem that can emerge in this regard is the absurd use of the value which the Torah gives to relationships as an argument that, in some manner, the Torah must sanction same-sex relationships. The contention is very simple; in that the Torah states that it is not good for a person to be alone and that the only relationship that can remove this loneliness for a gay individual is a same-sex relationship, it must be that the Torah must sanction same-sex attraction is some manner. This has led to the assertion that the Torah only forbids one type of sexual activity between individuals of the same sex and actually allows others. While the absurdity of such an assumption is clear to anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of Halacha, the sad reality is not only that such an argument exists but that many people in the world actually believe this to be the honest, Torah/Orthodox position. They consider any individuals who contend otherwise to be simply motivated by their own “homophobia” and not basing their position on a true analysis of Torah sources. As absurd as this may sound, this reality cannot be ignored. It is important to continuously challenge any assertions of this nature.

A further outgrowth of this problem that should also be recognized is how this entire issue is seen as encompassing the realm of love. The desires of an individual with same-sex attraction is perceived in our world to be about bonding and finding a “soul mate,” not simply the physical activity of sex. In a somewhat strange deviant manner, it is the very Torah value of finding an ezer kenegdo that is being used to substantiate same-sex relationships. After all, God does not want us to be alone for it is not good to be alone? The fact that the Torah clearly indicates that an ezer kenegdo must be of the opposite sex is simply dismissed. We must deal with this misapplication of Torah.

This in turn leads us to the development of groups for what are described as gay, Orthodox individuals. Such groupings reflect an inherent contradiction. It is one thing for individuals facing similar challenges to have the wish to share their fight but that is not what is occurring. These organizations actually seem to further foster the problems enunciated above. A same-sex Shabbaton specifically for individuals with same-sex attraction makes no halachic sense. Such events are social in nature and, given the nature of the challenge that these individuals are facing, a social event of this nature would seem to be inappropriate as it would actually highlight the sexual attraction. The challenges of integrating a gay individual into Torah society are manifold. Organizations or programs that attempt to do so by focusing on the “ritualistic” aspects of Torah while downplaying the severity of this transgression – even challenging this transgression by stressing the value of the relationship – must be addressed. The movie “Trembling Before G-d” is a perfect example of this manipulation. This movie has done a great disservice to Torah, even more so in that it portrays itself as an honest presentation of Torah. Responding to the development of such organizational structures and the furtherance of such programs within the Orthodox community must be one of the issues we deal with when confronting this topic.

Jewish Communal

There has always been an issue within Orthodoxy in regard to how we are to relate to non-Orthodox Jewish communal entities. This issue is exasperated by this topic. While in the past, there might have been a reluctance by the non-Orthodox to consider halachic parameters in their decisions, except in terms of convenience or practicality, there was not, in general, a vehement advocacy against the Halacha. It may be that they would not want to be bothered by having to be concerned about serving kosher food but they were not generally adamantly against the serving of kosher food. In regard to this issue, though, the overriding perspective that dominates the non-Orthodox world is that it would be morally correct to contest the Orthodox position. The result is that it is now much more difficult to relate to non-Orthodox entities and the question of how we can relate demands new attention.

This issue should not be defined solely in regard to how we relate to the other branches of Judaism. How we relate to them in general is a policy issue within Orthodoxy that demands its own investigation. There are obviously many different perspectives on this. In this regard, though, it should be recognized that this issue is one that these other branches perceive as giving them ammunition in attacking Orthodoxy. The simple Reform argument is no longer that the Orthodox do much more than is really necessary and it is possible for one to be a good person even without keeping kosher. Being Orthodox still did not necessarily mean that one was not moral even if he/she did all these “rituals”. This is not the case any more. The new Reform argument is that the Orthodox are not ethical as evidenced by their position on homosexuality and that being Reform is actually a higher moral viewpoint (and one can still do the “rituals” that one finds personally meaningful even as a Reform Jew). The result may be that we will have to distance ourselves further from the other branches than before. New battle lines are being drawn and we must be aware of them.

The greater issue in terms of the general Jewish community, though, is in regard to the general Jewish communal entities that oversee the community as a whole. They speak for the entire Jewish community or take positions that affect the entire Jewish community and may now represent or implement an anti-halachic perspective/policy if an issue touches upon the question of gays. How are we to respond to a Federation that advocates on behalf of an organization representing Jewish gays? Does Orthodox association with a Federation that adopts such positions imply that we agree with this position? In Toronto, an anti-Israel, gay organization was going to participate in the annual Gay Rights Parade, marching and denouncing Israel. The Jewish gay organization responded by marching and expressing support for Israel. The Federation supported this endeavour, calling upon Jews in general to join this protest for Israel. How are we to respond? Can we just be silent?

General Society

It is important for us to recognize that we are maintaining a position that runs counter to the general trend within our societies and, as such, promotes a moral position that is contrary to the “moral” position of a large segment of our society. Even more so, as this segment grows, the result is a value conflict for our host societies between the value of freedom of religion – that people should be allowed to follow their own religious consciousness – and the value of non-discrimination – that gays should be allowed the same rights as heterosexuals including that their relationships be seen as having equal value. We cannot be confident that freedom of religion will always trump over all conflicting positions. The result must be that we carefully choose the areas of greatest concern and focus on them. We must also be clear in how we articulate the conflict to describe it in such a manner that increases our chances of victory.

The actual potential harm to our way of life must be our first consideration. For example, in regard to the issue of same-sex marriage, while obviously contrary to our views, what actual effect is there upon us if such marriages are accepted? A greater concern should be any potential legislation that would demand that schools teach about “acceptable alternative lifestyles” which would force yeshivot to include, in their secular studies, lessons about same-sex relationships. Of course, the two issues are intertwined and the advancement of the former may add force to the imposition of the latter. This has to be a consideration in how we proceed but, on the surface, it may be better to concentrate on the latter where, since it imposes upon us, we may have a better chance of success.

A key point to remember is that, in a different yet similar way, we are potentially facing the same problems that our ancestors faced from host societies. In the Middle Age, the devout Catholic found the Jewish rejection of their faith to be an ethical, moral problem. It ran counter to their values and their issue was to what extent to allow this “improper” value in their society. The advance of secularism in Europe led to greater freedom of religion, but only because the values that were being challenged previously by these foreign religions, such as Judaism, were no longer important societal values. We now face a situation where our values may powerfully run contrary to the values promoted by secularism. In this situation, the secularist may not be as open to freedom of religion because it is not a case of one religious position being challenged by another religious position, both of irrelevance to the secularist anyway. How will the secularist apply freedom of religion when it is one of his secularist values that is being challenged? That is a question we cannot answer at this time but it is one of which we must be aware.

I hope this presentation is helpful in attempting to give an overall view of the many particulars included within this issue. It is important to recognize that, in addition to practical, policy analysis, these questions may raise, the entire issue may also demand of us further philosophical investigation of the entire topic of sexuality. It is my belief that at the core of secular society’s change in its attitude towards homosexuality is its formation of the issue as one of love and relationships rather than physical desire.

To assert our view of the subject, it will be necessary to respond to this issue which may demand from us a greater understanding of the Torah’s perspective on the connection between the emotions of a spousal relationship and the drives of sexuality.

I am, of course, open to any further suggestions of other issues that should be included in a holistic review of the entire topic as I have attempted here. I now leave it to you to further the analysis and investigation towards the goal of an overall policy in regard to how to deal with this issue. Please do communicate your thoughts.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Need for Policy

The purpose of this blog is to further the Torah discussion on policy issues, societal matters which must be approached from a macro-perspective. The nature of Halacha is generally to focus on the detail, on a specific act or event from a micro-perspective. The result is often that the macro-perspective, which also has a place in the overall halachic worldviews, is overlooked. The goal of this blog is to bring this perspective back into the focus.

An example of a Torah policy debate which may reflect this perspective is the debate between Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva on one side and Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel on the other in regard to capital punishment as presented in T.B. Makkot 7a. Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva said that if they were ever on a beit din that had to adjudicate a capital offense they would never execute anyone. Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel argued that this would have a disastrous effect of increasing the possibility of murder. From a strict halachic perspective, there could be no issue with Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva. They would not be violating any halachot. What they were saying was, as judges, within the realm of their legitimate roles, they would always be able to find a way to exonerate the person -- and this is totally acceptable. Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel does not argue that halachically they do not have this right but, rather, is presenting a policy argument that, from the macro-perspective, this would not be a good policy to follow. Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva obviously disagree with this policy perspective, adopting another one that believes it to be more correct, from the macro-perspective, to not carry out capital punishments. This is still a Torah debate, demanding an investigation of Torah sources, but on the different level of policy. It is such investigations that we wish to highlight in the blog.

Further on our present need for policy analysis within the Torah world, please see my article "The Need for Policy" at http://www.nishma.org/articles/commentary/policy.html

Rabbi Ben Hecht