Ever since I was a kid, aged 10 or 11, I have known something about myself, not something remarkable or shocking, but interesting nonetheless: people like talking to me.
It could be my tolerance or my tendency to calmness even when met with the most shocking things, or just some mysterious quality in the air around my head, but for whatever reason, People like talking to me. And I appreciate it very much too. Every time someone talks to me about themselves, or even about the weather or the football results, it creates new paths of thought and imagination, and empathy. Throughout my high school and yeshiva years, and even to this day, perfect strangers confide in me, and treat me as if I was a long-standing friend. This might be wonderful if I worked in sales, but it takes a little getting used to in everyday life….
When I think about the awful argument that is currently raging in the Jewish community over the views of my esteemed rav, Rabbi Joseph Dweck, I’m reminded of a wonderful line from Douglas Adams. “And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change”. Obviously, albeit in his dark cynical way, he was talking about people’s tendency to misrepresent the views of others, and how it can lead to evil. An orthodox Jew would possibly take a different view in that particular occurrence, but the point remains clear. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, not because the intentions or person themselves is faulty, but because people make your road hell, despite your intentions.
I’m far from being a rabbi, and I couldn’t really be called Orthodox, but to me, Rav Dweck, in his characteristic way, dealt with a dangerous, difficult issue, with love and with care, and with bravery. He knew this was a controversial topic, and one that had been misused and neglected for a long time. His intentions were never to edit Torah, or to call chazal mistaken, just to bring people round to love. And to make the very valid point that Torah very rarely commands disgust or hate, we introduce it ourselves and label it “religion”. I have been asking a lot of people this week if they are as disgusted by chillul shabbos as they are by this, and if not…why?. He made abundantly clear where there is black and white (halacha) and where there should be room for the grey (sensitivity to people, and tempering of tone). And although there were a couple of lines that could have been said better and he possibly made light of some areas that he should have phrased differently, after following him for 2 years, if there’s one message I have taken from him, is that CONTEXT MATTERS. And the people that have misrepresented his views have in my opinion ignored this, his primary teaching. I urge everyone to listen to his whole shiur and read his clarification.
To return to my original point, people talk to me, and when they do, this issue comes up quite frequently. Over the past 15 years, I have met between 30-40 Jewish male homosexuals, both in and out “the closet”, all brought up in the same or similar Orthodox “frum” community as me. The amount of pain that is wrought upon their heads as a result of of something they cannot control, is utterly shameful. All the traditional stock responses fail when it comes to this topic. To these people, people in our midst, who we walk by every day, Homosexuality isn’t some “test” they need to pass or a “passing urge” they have to resist, it is their life, their identity, their timeline;
When they were 11, they realised they were different, they usually had a tendency for the effeminate, or the over-dramatic, or the poetic, that people nervously dismissed as “character” and they were taught to tone it down.
When they were 13, the playground bully, who was excellent at football, made it abundantly clear what he thought of their touchiness, they were taught not to love
When all their friends were joking about girls, sharing experiences and testing boundaries at age 15, they were sobbing into their pillows about a guy in their class they could never tell and never touch and never talk about, and they were taught to stay quiet.
When they were 17, and suddenly people with questions were not so popular, and all the people that had answers were never good enough, and the feelings they felt were either evil or non-existent, and they were taught to bury their doubts.
When they were 19, they couldn’t bear being in a male-only dorm in yeshiva, the constant urges, the homophobic diatribes from otherwise-respectable people.They were told to seek professional help. They were taught to hate themselves.
What is next for these guys? Well, a few have chosen suicide (in the non-Jewish world the figures are that LGBT teens have double the likelihood of suicide). Ending it all, rather than experience any more pain, Rav Dweck has been to these funerals. Some choose to marry a girl, for respectability, but to the pain of the individual, and inflicting their sad selves onto women who they can never fully love. Most drift around for a few years with a darkness about them, the same grey cloud of doubt, that has followed them for years, an anger toward the past, an uneasiness about the future, and only uncertainty ahead. Inevitably I think, a lot will leave Judaism completely, attaching rarely for family reunions and chicken soup.
Unless of course, there could be some light at the end of the tunnel, that for once didn’t turn out to be a train coming to mow you down, a beacon of hope and security. Someone to tell you you aren’t wicked and you aren’t sick and to put an arm of tolerance around you, who invites you back in to the shul and who tells you, that although in the times of sanhedrin justice Torah deals severely with what it sees as a a deviance, we are not personally disgusted with you. And though we will not lie about Torah when we teach you the verses and the halachah, and (perhaps unfairly) expect you to not act on your (only real) desires, we will not debase ourselves to call names, to throw stones.
Why? because to us, you are human, to us you are wonderful, to us you are a Jew. If only there was someone, someone who spoke out about oppression and repression. Someone who despite being frum, and orthodox and true to Torah values, was warm and sensitive and kind. If only there was someone that could help world Jewry through this painful difficult subject, and with this question that (almost) everyone else fails to deal with.
Oh there is, well, at least there was. — my rebbi, Rabbi Joseph Dweck.
I look forward to hearing him again.