“God created me this way.”
That’s the claim most responsible for the increasing Jewish embrace of homosexuality over the last few decades. But as demonstrated by mounds of research on homosexuality, God doesn’t make anyone gay. We do not know where attractions come from, but sexual orientation is much more cultural than biological, which means gayness (and straightness) cannot be a fundamental part of our DNA.
(Yes, God is responsible for everything. But people who say “God made me gay” reference nature, not nurture.)
The biological studies trumpeted by the media about gay genes, the “gay brain,” and other supposed physical differences between gays and straights are all preliminary and mostly disputed. Yet the abundant historical and anthropological research about homosexuality across space and time expressly shows that being gay is a uniquely Western phenomenon about 150 years old. So taken as a whole, the scholarship indicates that sexual orientation is not innate.
Wait, there have always been gays and lesbians, right? Not according to the scholars who have looked most closely at the evidence. There’s much documentation of gay sex and relationships in the past, but not of gay minorities or even distinctly gay individuals.
The idea is subtle, counter-intuitive, and shocking to most people. I don’t have space here to walk through the evidence and the debunk possible objections, but I have done so at length in an essential essay at the Daily Caller entitled “Nobody’s born that way, gay historians say.”
Still, much of the Jewish world has liberalized its policies regarding homosexuality out of conviction that being gay is something God instills in people. For example, Reform Judaism has justified LGBT equality “in accordance with the teaching … that all human beings are created B’tzelem Elohim (in the divine image).
Set aside the startling implication that God is, at least in part, gay Himself. The thesis that Judaism should equate same-sex and opposite-sex relations because gay people are created in the image of God falls apart since, as the bulk of the scholarly research suggests, the human species had no gay minority until the mid-19th century. Why would God create lesbians in modern Paris but not in medieval Sri Lanka? Any Jew willing to take the academic research seriously (in its totality) has to face that question before declaring that God makes people gay.
Members of other movements have also built attitudes toward LGBT people based on erroneous assumptions about homosexuality being inborn. The Conservative movement’s most important voice pushing for gay ordination and unions has been Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff. His pioneering 1992 responsum (in which he indicated he was “indebted” to me for the clarifications about homosexuality I made when I was actively gay and a Conservative Jew), made a biological argument for condoning gay relations.
He wrote in that Jewish legal opinion that “I, for one, cannot believe that the God who created us all created ten percent of us to have sexual drives which cannot be legally expressed under any circumstances. That is simply mind-boggling – and, frankly, un-Jewish.” Rabbi Dorff then cited three natural-science studies that suggest a biological link to homosexuality.
Ironically, much of the rest of Rabbi Dorff’s responsum argued that historical factors should influence Jewish law. But he didn’t address the ample social-science evidence that gayness is culturally and historically specific, which means he was either unaware of it or chose to ignore it in his attempt to paint being gay as innate. If Conservative Jews looked closely at the broad scholarship on homosexuality (rather than narrowly at the scant biological data), some of them might have to re-think their positions.
A variety of Orthodox voices have also bought into the idea that God gives people sexual orientations. One Web site for families and friends of frum gays is called “Kirtzono” (“according to his will”), a reference to women’s morning blessing acknowledging their God-given Jewish roles. Many left-of-center and centrist Orthodox rabbis have used the B’tzelem Elohim concept as a key text when they address homosexuality. And even the great Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneersohn of blessed memory accepted homosexuality as biological in a letter to a gay man and in one of his sichos (talks).
But today’s most reliable experts say being gay isn’t hard-wired. Think about it: the top researchers to find supposed biological links to homosexuality have been LGBT themselves (such as Alfred Kinsey, Simon LeVay, and Dean Hamer). The leading scholars to demonstrate that gayness is historically and culturally specific (such as Martin Duberman, George Chauncey, and Esther Newton) are also LGBT. The natural scientists fortify the gay community’s worldview, whereas the social scientists undermine it. Doesn’t the group without the agenda deserve more trust?
To be clear: having a gay orientation is rarely a choice. (I certainly never chose to be gay.) That raises a legitimate question: if it’s not inborn, how does anyone end up gay or straight? Surely everyone’s story is different, depending on various socio-cultural and environmental factors. There’s lots of room for further study of the etiology of sexual orientation. But anyone nominating genes and body parts – or God – is looking in the wrong place.
David Benkof is a Stanford-trained historian whose research and teaching have focused on modern Jewish history and the gay and lesbian past. E-mail him at DavidBenkof@gmail.com or follow him on Facebook.