Does the Gay Issue Threaten the Continuity of Orthodoxy?
An essay penned by the lead educator at a Modern Orthodox high school warned of possible shock. “This may surprise many adults, but the reconciliation of the Torah’s discussion of homosexuality represents the single most formidable religious challenge for our young people today.”
The author’s declaration was every bit as surprising and shocking as he warned it would be. If true, we are looking at a systemic failure of Torah chinuch in significant parts of the Orthodox world. It would be to Orthodoxy what Galileo and Bruno had been to the Church – massive inability to respond appropriately to an intellectual challenge.
Reading on in the essay, the incredulity mounted.
More young people are “coming out” than ever before, and that repeatedly puts a face to this theological challenge…As they go off to college, students invariably face the painful moral dilemma created by the seemingly intractable conflict: believing in the primacy and validity of the Torah on the one hand, and following their hearts’ sense of morality with regard to loving and accepting their gay friends – or perhaps “coming out” themselves—on the other. All too often, this earnest challenge results in our children quietly losing faith in the Torah as a moral way of life.
In my experience, many, if not most, 20 to 40-year olds in the modern Orthodox world struggle with the issue of homosexuality and the divinity of the Torah. They believe in a kind and just God and they want to believe in the divinity of the Torah. But at the same time they feel fairly certain that being gay is not a matter of choice. In the apparent conflict of these ideas, the first two premises seem to be losing ground.
Could this really be? A Jewish people fiercely clings to its love and devotion to HKBH through millennia of persecution, pogroms, penury, ghettos, auto-da-fes, Crusades, exile, religious and racial hatred and a Holocaust – only to lose its faith over the banning of behavior foreign to 98% of the population?
In those rare moments when our adversaries forgot about us long enough not to visit those horrors upon us, we contemplated a world in which suffering, disease, child mortality, ever-present warfare, and the brutish subjugation of the many by the few were the rule, not the exception. And we went right on proclaiming the goodness of G-d, Who gave us the Torah we cherished!
When we repaired to the beis midrash we found respite and elevation. We read about Avrohom pointedly inquiring about Hashem’s mishpat. We tried putting ourselves in his shoes on the way to the Akeidah, preparing himself to slaughter his son for no reason other than Hashem wanted him to. (Not quite figuring it out how he passed his test did not prevent us, daily, from trying to collect Divine favor in his merit.) We listened to the plaintive cries of Yirmiyahu contemplating the vast destruction of the Churban. And we hung on to every word of dialogue in the Book of Iyov, waiting for the eureka moment in which we understood the prevalence of evil in our world.
It never came. But we never relaxed our conviction about Hashem’s justice – although repeatedly given the opportunity. Moshe emes, v’soroso emes.
And the gay issue is the burden that is too difficult to bear, the one that will open the exit door to observance for Orthodox young people?
We could take this discussion in several directions. Some will challenge – perhaps correctly – the “many-if-not-most” assertion of the author. Others will enjoy a moment in triumphalists’ heaven, gloating on how the obviously less-pious Jews of the Modern Orthodox world got it all wrong, just as the “more Torah-authentic” Jews always suspected. This triumphalism is neither deserved, nor helpful.
It might be more fruitful to discuss why the gay issue is a tempest in a cholent pot in other parts of the Orthodox world. Why is it unthinkable that substantial numbers of frum kids elsewhere would give up belief in G-d or the divinity of Torah in response?
In some parts of the community, the question is moot. Gays are not discussed. Even using the word is taboo. What you don’t think about can’t be much of an issue. But this is not the case elsewhere, where people talk about the problem, are aware of families that have children who have come out, and have embraced Rav Aharon Feldman’s now-classic position paper on the subject. They struggle to comprehend the pain and loneliness of people they know about – but giving up on the foundations of Judaism is not part of the response. Why not?
Essentially, we’re asking why Torah chinuch in some parts of the community – certainly no stranger to their own problems – nonetheless is more successful in this area. What does it take to produce loyal Jews rather than emunah-challenged socially orthodox ones?
We should be devoting serious study to this and related issues – meaning the collection of real data analyzed by proper scientific methodologies. Such study remains, at the moment, a pipe-dream. In its absence, I will offer one thought, which should be taken as nothing more than the product of some decades of observation, coupled with personal conjecture.
Two phrases seem notably absent in the conversation in parts of the community, while very much in evidence in others. I believe that they have a profound effect on the orientation of young people. Those phrases are kabolas ole, and avodas Hashem. I rarely – if ever – hear them from my Modern Orthodox students and associates. I hear them often enough in parts of the community further to the right.
Kabolas ole means acceptance of the yoke of mitzvos. It means that a person is prepared to do whatever HKBH asks of him or her. Accepting this yoke means that when established halachic protocols yield prescriptions and proscriptions, we obey them whether or not we find them convenient, whether or not they appeal to our sense of reason, and whether or not they are politically correct.
Avodas Hashem means recognizing that each of us was placed on this earth to serve His goals, not what we perceive are our own. Placing this idea front and center means that we don’t treat the demands of Yiddishkeit as some form of payoff to a Divine boss, and once those demands are satisfied, are free to pursue all that we really want to do. It means that we find the ultimate sense of fulfillment in pleasing Him, no one else.
The combination of these two phrases is a potent elixir, providing those who drink it with the strength to endure many challenges.
I would never suggest that these two concepts describe the inner life and the outer behavior of the majority of the right-of-center Orthodox world. There are indeed many lapses, in deed and in intent. But words – memes – are important. They help define the boundaries of our thoughts, even if they do not linearly dictate their exact content. They create expectations that exert pressure – sometimes consciously, sometimes not – on behavior.
Many of us look with revulsion at some of the memes that are transmitted by popular culture, particularly television, film, and popular music. In doing so, we (correctly) assume the impact that memes encouraging instant gratification, self-centeredness, and coarseness have on ourselves and our children. Should we be surprised if positively-oriented memes have a salutary effect on chinuch?
Kabolas ole and avodas Hashem are phrases in the active vocabulary of large parts of the Orthodox world. Teaching them to young children, repeating them again and again, make them part of Orthodox consciousness. When they are part of someone’s life, he or she has an easier time responding positively to some of their implications. When they are absent from everyday life, those implications often never make it to the conscious mind.
I don’t have the wherewithal to reintroduce these phrases into the everyday discussion of some parts of the Orthodox world. But for those who read the essay by the high school principal with horror, the reaction should be clear. We should ensure that concepts close to our minds and souls remain in sharp focus. Repeating concepts like kabolas ole and avodas Hashem too often is a far better approach than not often enough.
May it be His Will that they rub off on both our children and ourselves.
 Among other things, it reminds us that the Torah forbids behaviors, not orientation; that our dealings with those with SSAs should be compassionate and respectful, rather than contemptuous; that Orthodox men and women with SSAs have a contribution to make to the Orthodox community.