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Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Orthodoxy and Homosexuality -- The Need to Define and Clarify the Issues

Perhaps it is because of the present dispute regarding transgender public bathrooms in the U.S. -- or maybe it is simply because this topic is one that does continue to demand our attention -- but the subject of Orthodoxy and homosexuality -- or, to be more politically correct, in our present world, Orthodoxy and the LGBT community -- again seems to be in the spotlight. As one, though, who has been involved with this investigation since the 1980's, I find that the depth of the issues involved within this subject have actually become more and more overlooked -- even as the breadth of the extension of this topic into the community has expanded. My initial thought was, as such, that it may be incumbent on me to highlight as significant reading, in various venues, the articles that I have  authored through the developmental years on this subject -- and that is why I will be presenting links to them at the end of this post. I, though, do believe that there is, as well, a further need to clearly define and clarify the issues that must be diligently faced within any discussion of this nature. This is a most complex concern and this is often simply not realized. This complexity must be seen.

There are actually two different major categories of issues that are inherently addressed within this subject. One, I have termed: Disposition; the other I would label: Behaviour. This is not to say that there is no overlap between the two but this distinction is important for it offers us means by which to address this overall issue, especially the complexity.

By the term Disposition, I am referring to what we may identify as the inherent, physical distinctions between individuals that are factors within this discussion. The questions that would thus be addressed within this category would concern how Orthodoxy should relate to individuals who are attracted to members of the same sex. This Disposition issue in regard to Orthodoxy and homosexuality, in itself, as such, has nothing to do with the behaviour of such individuals. The question that emerges simply concerns whether there is any theological basis for a difference, within the Orthodox community, in the response towards individuals who have this characteristic, namely an attraction to members of the same sex. This question is very specific: how are we to relate to gay individuals? Should the fact that someone is gay even be a consideration in how we relate to him/her? A corollary of these questions may be: how should we relate to a group of individuals given that it may include gay individuals?

The matter goes beyond discrimination although that is an obvious issue. Many gay individuals (who are not identified as such, which would be the normative situation in general company) find it difficult that, in many conversations, once they are identified as single, the discussion often turns to potential shiduchim. The motivation of the group, of course, is positive; they just wish to be helpful through possibly assisting someone in finding a mate in marriage? To the gay person who may be the focus of the discussion, however, this only highlights his/her distinction (which is, furthermore, unknown to the others) and even possible estrangement from the community. Are we then never to raise the subject of shiduchim in our general, communal encounters? What about the general benefit of such discussion within the broader community? A further question then also emerges: how open should one be about one's sexual identity? How accepting or encouraging should the community then be to this openness? There are many reasons presented for supporting such openness but there are also many legitimate reasons for why this aspect of identity should be maintained as a private matter. This argument for privacy does not mean that this characteristic of identity should not be shared with anyone but, rather, that it should only be revealed as a result of discreet and thoughtful reflection. The fact is that, even just in respect to Disposition and without any consideration of Behaviour, there are many questions for the Orthodox world to contemplate in regard to gay individuals. To gain the full picture and to thus respond appropriately, it is important to recognize this.

Of course, the issue of Disposition still cannot be recognized as existing solely within a vacuum. The issue of Behaviour is not a fully independent one but depends on and inherently flows from Disposition. The fact is that Orthodoxy prohibits any action that flows from same sex attraction. As such, since Behaviour is inherently tied to Disposition, the halachic restrictions on Behaviour must have some effect on the Orthodox response to distinction in Disposition, even without consideration of actual behaviour. For example, the fact that certain heterosexual behaviour is halachically prohibited has an effect on how Orthodoxy relates to heterosexual individuals. We separate men and women because of  heterosexual desires even though individuals have not acted in any way contrary to the law. The concern for such violation is enough to affect the communal response. The question thus emerges in regard to Orthodoxy and homosexuality, as Disposition enters the realm of the issue of Behaviour, what effect the restrictions on same sex sexual contact, and the potential for violation, may have on one simply with this attraction?

This issue is not an uncomplicated one and answers may not be easily forthcoming. I remember being told by a gay individual who had just moved to a new community about his discomfort in shul. He just did not feel right sitting, during davening, in the company of men given his general attraction to them. He mentioned that he, personally, would obviously feel more comfortable in the women's section but recognized that this was not really an option given the communal nature of this matter. The first issue that confronts us in regard to the gay community is how we should treat people who live with choices outside the realm of our understanding, in this case, with same sex attraction. Given, however, that this distinction also has halachic repercussions in that there would seem to be no behaviour that provides a means to satisfy this drive in a halachically permitted manner, the issue clearly becomes deeper. Yichud clearly becomes a further difficult matter. A major theological issue is also enjoined: why would God create individuals with such a drive if it has no purpose?

The subject is obviously a full one even before we actually confront the issue of Behaviour. By this classification, I am referring to the general question of how Orthodoxy should relate to individuals who maintain a gay lifestyle, which, of course, would be in violation of Halacha. In a certain way, this is just a specific case of the greater question of how Orthodoxy should relate to individuals who transgress Torah law. The question, however, is more complex on many levels.

How Orthodox synagogues relate to individuals who are known to openly desecrate Shabbat is often used as a base point -- and there is much value in such a comparison. From a halachic perspective, if there are no parameters on the way in which we are to interrelate with such an individual, especially given the value of Sabbath observance as a defining element of Orthodoxy, why would there be parameters in regard to gay individuals? The fact is, though, that there are parameters, according to some views, on how we are to relate to one who publicly violates Shabbat. This being so, similar type arguments could then be made, according to these views, that there should be parameters on how Orthodoxy interacts with the gay community. A weakness in this argument, however, exists for it may just be Sabbath desecration, given its defining significance, that elicits such parameters and that other violators of the law should not be so treated. The fact is, and sadly so, there are individuals who simply wish to apply such parameters on gays because of inherent homophobic feelings towards them -- and it is important for people to practice significant self-examination in regard to whether their views truly reflect an honest understanding of Halacha or simply personal feelings. Nevertheless, there are variant viewpoints within Orthodoxy in regard to the question of permitted interaction with non-observant individuals and this discussion would extend to those maintaining a gay lifestyle. Still, though, the vast majority of present-day Orthodox Jews do not generally exercise limitations, or, at least, strict limitations, in their interactions with those who do not follow Halacha, albeit that nearly all still may apply some parameters. The question then arises: how would these halachic concerns be reflected in Orthodoxy's relationship with those maintaining a gay lifestyle?

Again applying the standard of Shabbat, we may wish to point to the fact that most Orthodox synagogues that are welcoming to those who do not observe Shabbat still close their parking lots from Friday evening to Saturday night. While if you drive to shul on Shabbat, you will be warmly welcomed within the walls of the building, and may even be given an aliyah, the closure of these parking lots would seem to indicate that a message must still be pronounced -- that, pursuant to Halacha, driving a car, even to shul on Shabbat, is still forbidden. In the same vein, it would seem similarly appropriate for Orthodoxy, in positively relating to gay individuals, to still wish to clearly indicate that it is not foregoing its halachic standard that same sex sexual activity is forbidden. Does a similar type of question as to whether a shul parking lot should be opened or not on Shabbat then also surface in regard to Orthodoxy and homosexuality?

The fact is that the issue is even more complex. Same sex attraction is not just simply about physical attraction but enters the very realm of relationships. The question of how Orthodoxy should relate to the gay community does not, thus, simply involve how we are to interact with individuals who violate a specific Torah law regarding same sex behaviour. How is an Orthodox synagogue to relate to a same sex couple -- who may even have children and is perceived as a family within general society? To be sensitive to the individual and the couple identity of these individuals would seem to reflect a renouncement of Torah but to not do so would seem to also challenge the very call of a sensitivity existent within the realm of Torah-dictates as well. The issue becomes even more problematic with the advancement of the mistaken idea that the Halachic standard is more flexible than it actually is. To find some manner in which a person could act in fulfillment of a same sex attraction within the confines of Halacha would clearly solve so much of this beleaguered dilemma -- and we can clearly understand why many would like to believe that such an answer does exist. It, however, does not. The argument that such a possibility exists only raises a new demand: the need to protect the very integrity of the Halachic system itself. The issue is longer how to relate to one who violates the law but how to relate to one who does so believing that such behaviour is totally in concert with Halacha. The powerful challenge of this dilemma, in all its breadth, remains before us without any simple answers.

I find myself often considering the theological question of why God would create such a drive which He then forbids to be employed in any manner. I don't have an answer. The one thing I do know is that it is fully inappropriate for me, in any manner, to judge an individual who personally faces this difficulty. It is a dialogue between the individual and God. The challenge for me, though, is that I am given certain instructions from God regarding my behaviour and my goal must be to meet these standards as best as I can understand them and maintain them. The call is to be sensitive to the other. The call is also to properly present the values of Torah. Meeting these two calls, though, can often be most difficult. That is a dilemma that we must acknowledge in facing this issue. 

I also invite you to view the following articles that I have written over the years regarding this topic. It is often presented that it is hard to pin-point me; in some ways, I am critiqued for leaning to the right while in others I am critiqued for leaning to the left. The Forward once questioned me about being the only Rabbi who signed two petitions, circulated to Orthodox Rabbis, regarding Orthodoxy and Homosexuality. Most perceived the petitions to be in conflict with each other. I did not. (See, from the Forward, Orthodox Rabbis Oppose Gay Marriage)  This is always because the dilemma is always before me and that this recognition is God's present demand from me. It is one I also feel, in the furtherance of the presentation of the Torah's great depth, I must share.

Rabbi Ben Hecht


RBH Articles on Orthodoxy and Homosexuality

Commentary: The Same Sex Marriage and Defining Discrimination

Spark 5754-27: To'evah

Introspection 5761 -#1: Essential Conflict: Essential Study

Commentary Series on "Trembling Before G-d": Analyzing Homosexuality & Orthodoxy

1 comment:

  1. Well written, as always. It is a complex and deep issue that will only become more front page news as law makers, at least in North America.....confront the issues as the lobbyists dish them up.