Homosexuality and the Torah Community
by Rabbi Yehuda Oppenheimer
This is a difficult topic.
I have started to write this essay several times, in several different ways, over the past few weeks, and abandoned it after being unhappy in the direction it was going. There are many complex issues that come into play, and it has been difficult for me to articulate a nuanced, “middle of the road” approach that does justice to the subject matter, proudly upholds Torah principles, and at the same time avoids writing that which will hurt the easily offended.
I am referring to the tension between Torah observance and those who harbor same-sex attraction. This issue has been in and out of the front pages over recent months, mostly to the detriment of Torah Jewry. The Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v.Hodges establishing same sex marriage as a constitutional right, resultant proclamations about Homosexuality, and the terrible attack and consequent Chilul Hashem in Jerusalem at the “Gay Pride” parade have all made life difficult for serious and sensitive Torah Jews who feel under attack when standing up for Torah values, in a world that celebrates “Gay rights” and cynically exploits the actions of a venal insane person in Jerusalem to tar all Orthodox Jews as being insensitive, ruthless, homophobic bigots.
I have read and seen (and written) various lectures and statements decrying the Supreme Court decision, and articles disassociating ourselves from the acts of that lunatic. I have also, unfortunately, seen statements by various Rabbis that have gone way too far in supporting the LGBT agenda and beating our breast for our sins in this matter. One prominent Israeli Rabbi gave a widely publicized lecture at a memorial for the victim, stating “Our [The Orthodox community as a whole] hands have spilled this blood”. The Executive Director of the Rabbinical Council of America was photographed speaking from the rainbow draped amud of the “Gay Synagogue” in New York, saying that we stand in solidarity with them, which was a source of great embarrassment for many RCA members.
What I have not heard is a positive approach that deals with the underlying issues and how we, as serious Torah Jews, might think about them. And I understand why I have not seen it – for the same reason that I will have a hard time getting this article published. Frum people do not want to discuss it. Many are revolted by the topic, fear having to discuss it with their children, or feel that the mere raising of the topic somehow violates the proper bounds of Kedusha and propriety.
To which I say, in an ideal world, perhaps they are right. But we do not live in an ideal world. We live in a world in which this topic is in discussion in the media, government, business, and everywhere one looks, every day. We can either choose the ostrich approach of burying our heads in the sand, or we can try to come up with a way of thinking about these issues that is honorable and dignified, and articulates how the Torah cares about individuals and the struggles they go through, while at the same time setting up standards for morals and values and human conduct that are timeless and eternal. I want to do my best to make an attempt to help begin this conversation. If we do not, we will continue to be increasingly trashed by society around us, and be written off by those within us who need our love and understanding. It is my fervent hope as I write these lines that something akin to the attitudes expressed below would be accepted by all Torah Jews as a way in which we approach these issues, talk about them in any public forum, and educate our children.
In order to begin talking about this, several points need to be made. There is no getting around discussing sexuality in general when approaching this subject, and we must be open and frank.
1. Sexual Attraction, or the stimuli, feelings, images, or fantasies, or whatever it is that cause one person to feel sexual attraction to another, whether Heterosexual or Homosexual, is not a rational subject. It cannot be said that “it is rational” or that “it makes sense” for a person to desire and even crave sexual pleasures, no matter how “normal” we assume it to be. In fact, if one were foolish enough to try to describe the heterosexual act to a small child, their reaction would probably be “yuck!”, and amazement that a rational person would contemplate doing something so “weird”. Nothing having to do with sexuality has any claim on the intellect.
But yet, as we all know, the Almighty in His infinite wisdom has created us with a deep desire for such activity — indeed it is one of the most powerful drives that always has, and always will, motivate human behavior across all of society. Why do we have this desire? Certainly for procreation…but there must be much more to it, or He could have made it far less powerful. Perhaps to remind us of our lowly spiritual status. Perhaps to provide a special bond between husbands and wives. I, of course, do not pretend that we mere mortals can possibly know. The bottom line, however, is that all normal humans have deep-seated sexual desires that cannot be explained rationally, and yet are nevertheless irrefutably powerful.
2. There are a relatively small but significant number of people in our society who are sexually attracted to the same gender, and not to the opposite gender. Any history of the world, whether in the Tanach or otherwise, will show that there have always been such people. There have also always been long-standing debates as to whether the cause of this was nature or nurture, i.e. whether it is an inborn desire or the result of factors relating to the person’s upbringing and life experiences. For practical purposes, for most self-identifying homosexuals today, that is a moot question, as it is virtually never a conscious choice made by the individual to be a homosexual. The important fact is that they have a sexual attraction to the same gender, and not to the opposite gender. As before, this is not any more or less “rational” than attraction to the opposite gender. It is just a fact of life, that some people have that disposition.
3. This realization was brought home to me by a long, difficult, and painful conversation that I had many years ago with a friend of mine whom I had been quite close to in Yeshiva. He confided to me that although he was generally a happy person, and one who always tried to look at the bright side of matters, he was deeply conflicted and sad. He had been dating for some time, trying to find his bashert, but severely hampered by the growing realization that he was not attracted to any of the women that he was meeting, nor any other woman. Instead, although he had been fighting the thoughts for a long time, he acknowledged that he was very attracted to men. He was not happy with this realization – indeed it pained him greatly as he was fully aware of the Torah’s prohibition against Homosexual activity and the importance of the mitzvah to marry and have children – but it was very real for him nonetheless. He knew that surrendering to this urge meant that he would never be able to feel whole as an Eved Hashem, nor would he be fully accepted in the Torah world that he loved. And yet, forcing himself to continue on the path to marrying a woman would quite probably lead to lifelong sexual frustration, an unhappy marriage, and many forms of existential misery. I cried for him then, and tears come to my eyes when I think of him now. Unfortunately we lost touch – I do not know which path in life he chose ultimately – but I suspect it was not the one that stayed within the normative Yeshiva world. My point in telling this story here: for most homosexuals, their predilection is not a matter of choice. It is hard to imagine anyone growing up within the Orthodox world who would choose to have this tendency, as it means that they are then faced with a terribly painful burden, which they probably wish that they did not have. They are certainly not to be blamed, let alone ridiculed, mocked or in any way looked down upon simply for having this predilection.
4. As mentioned, the Torah in Vayikra 22:18 (and elsewhere) expressly forbids a man to lie with another man as with a woman, calling it a תועבה , commonly translated an abomination. It is clear that the Torah does not cast homosexual feelings or desire alone as an abomination, but prohibits acting upon those feelings. Obviously, it would be far preferable if a person did not have a desire for an action that was forbidden by the Torah. But what the Torah absolutely forbids are actions, not un-acted upon desires.
This is not nearly as strange as it sounds. This state of affairs – having a desire that may not be acted upon – is one that is familiar to virtually everyone. All of us have a Yetzer Hara, or negative inclination, that causes us to desire actions that are forbidden. Whether it is in matters relating to money, or forbidden foods, or speaking Lashon Hara, or forbidden sexual relationships, we all have desires, at least occasionally, for that which the Torah (or other legal or moral codes) forbid. We are used to the idea that despite the fact that I may be very physically desirous of engaging in a particular activity, I am forbidden to act upon it.
One might ask, however, is not the fact that the Torah forbids a particular activity ipso facto proof that desire for that activity is in itself sinful and despicable? Rambam (in his introduction to Pirkei Avot (Shmoneh Perakim) i differentiates between two types of sins. There are (a) sins that we inherently know are wrong and immoral such as murder, thievery, and hurting other people. A person who desires these is sinful, and as long he/she desires to engage in such activity they are a sinner and in great need of introspection to rid oneself of such desires. However regarding sins that are (b) not inherently immoral, but are only forbidden because our Father in Heaven has forbade us to engage in them (what we would call a חוק ) it is not forbidden to harbor secret desires for such sins. He quotes the Sifri which says “A person should not say ‘I cannot (it is revolting to me) to eat a mixture of milk and meat, or to wear shatnez, or to engage in forbidden sexual relations ‘, but rather ‘I certainly can [engage in the prohibited], but what can I do – my Father in Heaven has forbidden me to do so’”. (A discussion of how this relates to the mitzvah of Lo Sachmod, Do not Covet, although an important part of this discussion, is beyond the scope of this essay).
It may be different in degree, and far more difficult to deal with, than the various “Yetzer Hara” urges that heterosexual people have to deal with, in that such a person may in fact have to live a life of celibacy and suppressed desires with no “kosher” sexual outlet, but it is not different in kind. Everyone in this world is given some burdens by the Almighty in the form of a Yetzer Hara that they are challenged to fight and not submit to. A person who consistently triumphs over the Yetzer Hara is a tzaddik; one who struggles with it, and is not always able to act perfectly, has a great deal of company, to one extent or another, with the rest of us. Only the Almighty Himself, who assigned different challenges and burdens to each of us, can judge and weigh the difficulty of the burden vs. the effort made to withstand temptation and overcome it, whatever that temptation may be.
5. The questions that then arise are (a) what is a serious Torah Jew who harbors such feelings to do in life?, (b) How are we as Torah Jews supposed to treat such brothers and sisters?, and (c) What is a proper Torah attitude regarding the LGBT agenda and “Gay Rights Movement” and the Same Sex Marriage decision, etc. What public stance is appropriate for us who proudly and unapologetically stand for Torah values, while not being seen as insensitive to the plight of homosexual individuals who suffer prejudice, ridicule, mockery and abuse through no fault of their own, and feel deprived of the right to equality in employment, marriage, and general civil life? These are not easy questions, and each of them alone can take up an entire essay. I will comment briefly on the first two:
A. This needs much sensitivity and thought. Some in the Torah community have advocated reparative therapy, an approach championed by an organization named JONAH, with the goal of “fixing the problem” and changing the individual into a person with heterosexual desires. They claim to have the approbation of some Gedolim, although that letter was written a long time ago. Many Rabbis, including the RCA, have taken public positions opposing them, and in June a New Jersey Court convicted them of fraud in a very disturbing decision. In my view, a helpful approach was taken in a public letter by Rav Aharon Feldman שליט”א Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Yisroel to a Baal Teshuvah, in which he sensitively articulated how a Homosexual person can have a special role to play in the Torah community. In short, it requires great empathy on the part of Rabbinic and community guides to help that person be all they can be in a Torah Kehilla.
A very important resource is the book Judaism and Homosexuality: An Authentic Orthodox View, by Rabbi Chaim Rapoport which greatly expands on many of the themes in this article, and should be required reading for anyone serious about the subject.
B. As far as how we in the Torah community are to treat our brothers and sisters who are “different”, based on what I have written above, I think the answer is simple: ואהבת לרעיך כמוך, “Love Thy Fellow as Thyself”, the overarching Torah principle.
As individuals, they should be accepted, respected, and given the same kavod as anyone else – as long as their sexual orientation is, as it should be – a private matter. Just like we relate to everyone else in the community as our brother and sister, with equal dignity and equal respect, and without inquiry into their private and intimate lives, so to ought it be for them. As a Rabbi in several positions, I have known, or strongly suspected, that some who attended services were Homosexuals. They were treated the same as everyone else, and unless they chose to speak to me privately about the matter, the issue was never raised. I welcomed them into the shul and my home with love and admiration, knowing that they have a difficult lot in life in which, despite the circus that exists in the outside world, they have chosen to treat as it ought to be – a private matter between them and Hashem. I deeply believe that this is the only legitimate Torah approach.
A great deal of work must be done in our communities to improve in this area, as there is no question that there are many people who feel it not only acceptable, but even obligatory, to speak disparagingly of homosexual individuals, as if this is what the Torah requires of us. There is no question that this attitude has been the cause of much unwarranted pain and angst, and sometimes cruelty against our fellow Jews. It is partially from this attitude that a monster such as Yishai Schlissel was bred, and this clearly must stop. It is imperative that our schools and shuls take a leading role in educating our young people that the mere fact that someone has a tendency towards homosexuality must not, G-d forbid, be a cause for hatred, but rather we must have love and empathy for those who have been given this difficult burden to bear.
C. As for a proper response of the Torah community to the efforts of the LGBT activists, this is where it gets difficult. Due to a variety of factors, the “Gay Rights” movement has become the “Civil Rights” movement of our generation. As is well known, activists have been all too successful in promoting an agenda that seeks to have homosexuality (and other “queer [their word] orientations”) recognized as morally, legally, and humanly completely equivalent with the traditional Biblical heterosexual view, i.e. that the Ribbono Shel Olam created us such that a Man should cleave to a Woman and be as one, and not to another Man.
Supporters of this movement have made incredible strides over the past generation, whereby societal attitudes have shifted from an overwhelmingly negative attitude towards homosexuality and abhorrence at the notion of Same Sex Marriage to where we are today. These days, if you are not an advocate for Gay Rights, supportive of Gay Marriage, and aghast at any attempt to exclude homosexuals from being school teachers, serving in the military, members of the clergy, or any other public position, you are derided as a homophobic bigot who is worthy of contempt.
Over twenty years ago when I was working as an engineer at AT&T Bell Labs, our group was called in one day and read a corporate policy that stated that AT&T considers people of all sexual orientations as completely equal in every way, and if any employee does not agree to this, they are homophobic, and should go see a therapist for counseling to assist in ridding themselves of this phobia, as it may affect their continued employment at AT&T. (!)
I trust that this is not unique to AT&T. It is becoming the norm in the society we live in, certainly in liberal New York City. And if you think Eretz Yisroel is any better, think again. I was recently astounded to read that Tel Aviv (not San Francisco) had been voted in 2011 as the “World’s Best Gay City” , whatever that means. It is pervasive and increasingly considered the correct and moral position; indeed in the eyes of the intelligentsia to be anything but fully supportive of the LGBT agenda is to be a nasty, unforgiving, unenlightened bigot who stands for repressing and harming vulnerable people etc. etc.
Obviously, for us, the fact that the Torah forbids this activity and calls it a תועבה is reason enough to understand that it is very negative. Nevertheless, given this milieu, what can we say that will convince the unconvinced of the superiority of the Torah’s moral code?
It seems to me that there are several arguments that can be appreciated by fair minded people, as to why celebrating a culture of “Gay Pride” and forced acceptance of moral equivalence for homosexuality is a very negative phenomenon that should be opposed.
- First and foremost is the sanctity of marriage and family. Although proponents of Same sex marriage would have us believe otherwise, it is the conviction of the Torah, and of most experts that children do best with having a male father and female mother in the home in which they grow up. It is of course true that not all heterosexuals are good parents; some are quite awful. It is also true that homosexual couples can be very devoted and sensitive parents. Nevertheless, traditional marriage is best for children, and best for society, as marriage is the foundation stone of the most basic society unit, the family.
- Furthermore, it has been shown countless times that Homosexuality leads to a tremendous tremendous increase in promiscuity, whereby it is the norm to have a great many partners and where sexuality becomes a very central part of life, rather than a very special sidelight to the many important areas of human endeavor.
Let us not lose sight of the fact that a staging a “Gay Pride” parade in Jerusalem is an outrage to the sanctity of the Holy City and hurtful provocation to deeply religious, both Jewish and Arab, who are incensed by it.
- Additionally, the “Gay Pride” parades are harmful to those who do not share these values. I do not for a moment condone what happened in Jerusalem. But it must be understood that the reason that there is a “Gay Pride” march specifically in the Holy City of Jerusalem, although many (most?) of the marchers do not live there, is to assert that Jerusalemites, most of whom, whether religious Jews or Arabs, are very upset that this march takes place in the Ir HaKodesh, must bow before the LGBT agenda. Again, not to condone what happened, but a smart person does not poke an angry dog and not expect to get a reaction. (Although they will never admit it, I am convinced that they were not altogether displeased that a religious fanatic helped them achieve far more publicity and sympathy for their cause than they would have otherwise received.) For Jerusalemites who wonder what, exactly, these people are “proud” of, and who note that the original rainbow which LGBT have taken as a symbol came about in the aftermath of the Flood, which was a result in great part of enormous sexual depravity, it is an outrage that this parade is foisted upon them, and a violation of their rights to not have their Holy City sullied by what, in the value system of the Torah, is an abomination.
- Finally – and most importantly – it is a problem for impressionable young people. And that is, in my view, because of a rarely talked about reason. I do not believe that sexual orientation is a binary matter; you are either heterosexual or homosexual, you are either attracted to the opposite gender or the same.
Apparently, most people are firmly heterosexual, and a minority are firmly homosexual. However there is a gray area in between, of people who could go one way or the other, given their experiences and choices.
To illustrate, it is a well known fact that there are people in every prison, and virtually every single gender dormitory (Including unfortunately all too many Yeshivos) where people who otherwise would clearly be heterosexual, either experiment or act out in a homosexual manner in that environment. I know this from another close friend, who reported to me that as a teenage bochur in a major Yeshiva, he was “horsing around” and wrestling with another boy when, to his horror, he found that he was aroused. He never saw himself as having homosexual tendencies, and was abhorred at the thought of it. But the fact was that he had this unnerving experience.
My point is that as young people explore their sexuality it is vitally important that they not be getting the message from society that heterosexual and homosexual lifestyles and choices are equally moral and valid choices. If they do, there will be many young people – from that middle group who are not “hard-wired” one way or the other, who would never have otherwise made the choice to be homosexuals — who may now explore it, much to their detriment, surely from a religious perspective.
This, to me, is the greatest danger of the Supreme Court decision. (I discussed the negative Constitutional and aspects of that decision in another essay). By granting full equality and status to Same Sex marriage; by removing all taboos and granting full societal approval of the LGBT lifestyle, it will have the very negative effect of influencing impressionable young people to pursue a homosexual lifestyle who otherwise would have never considered it seriously.
To anyone still reading this manifesto, I appreciate your staying with me. Maybe you have additional thoughts on the subject – I am most interested to hear about them in the comments.
The values of the Torah are under attack. Standing up for the Torah unapologetically in a way that upholds the dictum that “Her Ways are Ways of Pleasantness” is our life’s challenge, especially when it is not simple or easy. Let us show that we are up to the challenge of Loving our fellow, and making the Name of Hashem Beloved to All.
Rabbi Oppenheimer is the Rav of Young Israel of Forest Hills, and an attorney. This work first appeared on his blog, Libi BaMizrach.