With increasing awareness of homosexuality within the Orthodox Jewish world, a common, barely challenged refrain has been that abstaining from sex is not a real option for frum (traditionally observant) gay men. Often, advocates for changing Orthodox attitudes and policies on homosexuality have discussed celibacy with language and arguments that are poorly reasoned and insulting – even homophobic.
Yet traditionalists rarely respond convincingly, whether they would rather not discuss sexuality at all, are afraid of sounding bigoted, or simply have never heard cogent answers to such claims. This essay attempts to fill that gap.
I am a formerly sexually active gay man who has been celibate for more than 13 years as part of my best attempt to follow halacha (Jewish law). I have a heter (permission) from my rabbi not to date, marry, or have children.
(For the purposes of this essay, “celibate” means no sexual contact at all between any two people. For the most part, lesbian relations are not discussed in this piece since that issue is halachically distinct, although some of the ideas below also apply to women.)
My personal story
I started disclosing my homosexuality in college, and found good fellowship with other LGBT Jews. Soon after graduating, I wrote a widely syndicated gay history column, authored a book on the gay past, and owned the largest provider of content to the gay and lesbian press. I also taught gay history at educational institutions in San Jose, West Hollywood, and San Diego, California.
Already by age 20, I was craving better answers to my questions about homosexuality than non-traditional rabbis and Jewish leaders offered. In the 1990s, a widespread gay Jewish attitude toward Leviticus 18:22 (usually translated as “you shall not lie down with a male, as with a woman: this is an abomination”) was so pathetic it seems funny today: liberal Rabbi Arthur Waskow interpreted the verse to mean, essentially: “Don’t have sex with a man as with a woman. Have sex with a man as with a man!”
I certainly heard more seemingly reasonable non-Orthodox ideas justifying mishkav zachar (the Biblically prohibited gay sex act). The “abomination” in question was a rejection of pagan cultic practices, a denunciation of penetration aimed at humiliation, or just another expression of the tradition’s misogyny. None of these explanations worked for me. They seemed inconsistent with the text, and a result of inserting modern, au courant values into the Torah rather than accepting the Torah’s own values – like them or not.
At one point, I was struggling over whether to date women, given that I no longer really bought the supposed Jewish justifications for affirming gay sexuality. I approached the partnered, non-Orthodox rabbi of an LGBT congregation, but the response I received was an explicit sexual advance – which I rejected, appalled. Though it was just one disturbing moment involving a non-frum person, it helped startle me into considering approaches different from those I was finding outside Orthodoxy.
(Of course, many Orthodox Jews I’ve interacted with have been uncomfortable with anything gay-related that wasn’t purely hypothetical. After I was open about my celibacy, one rabbi invited me to speak about my story at his shul’s Shabbat kiddush. When the synagogue president found out, my talk was moved to a different floor, I was described to the congregation simply as a baal teshuvah – newly frum person – “with an interesting story,” and only the rabbi’s family showed up. Separately, a rabbi who had talked excitedly about my getting married someday quickly clarified he wasn’t referring to his own nubile daughters.)
Put-downs that sting
With sexual abstinence in the context of my evolving frum gay identity, I had to confront direct and indirect put-downs – some of which were likely unintentional. They stung nonetheless.
In a Huffington Post essay, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz promoted gay civil marriage in part because of Orthodoxy’s “empathy for those seeking loving relationships.” Fine. But he then tried to affirm same-sex love by suggesting that celibate gays are “deprived” of “full dignity,” and that our inability to form permissible new families is “horrifying.”
Next, the unorthodox and arguably un-Orthodox Yeshiva University-trained Rabbi Steve Greenberg suggested he doesn’t believe gay male claims of abstinence. Rabbi Greenberg, who has a male partner, told the Huffington Post he knows of only one other openly gay Orthodox rabbi in the world, but “he insists that he is celibate.” Not that he actually is celibate – he just insists that he is. Would Rabbi Greenberg ever say a woman “insists she goes to the mikvah?”
Rabbi Greenberg even told Moment that for gays who cannot marry, celibacy is simply unthinkable: “It’s just not realistic and not human.” Can’t we explore this subject without one side trying to dehumanize the other?
Sadly, some self-styled gay Jewish thinkers display contempt toward people like me. Dr. Jay Michaelson, the formerly Orthodox author of God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality, protested my “coming out” as celibate by penning a letter to Gay City News publicly calling me a nastier version of “fouled-up.” In a separate essay, Michaelson said he has never met “a single repressed gay Jew who is healthy, happy, wise, and living a full life of traditional Jewish values.”
I understand that the very existence of celibate gays undermines the arguments portraying tolerance of gay sex as the only legitimate Torah-based response to homosexuality. But that doesn’t warrant degrading people who diligently try to follow traditional halachic requirements – it just calls for better arguments.
The people with the most ignorant, spiteful ideas about homosexuality typically think they don’t know anyone gay. Shouldn’t those espousing more progressive Orthodox positions on homosexuality get to know celibate gay Orthodox Jews before denouncing our decisions as non-viable? I contacted Rabbi Yanklowitz after his essay appeared, and I told him that if, as I suspected, he knew no gays observing halacha on sexual behavior, I would be happy to be his first. He ignored my offer, and instead apologized “if” he had “offended” me.
In my life and in this essay, I try to focus on the weakness of gay arguments, not any weakness of gay willpower or character. I don’t want to demean LGBT people, no matter what life choices they’ve made. Is it so unreasonable to ask for similar treatment from Orthodox supporters of expanded space for homosexuality?
Jews dismissing gay celibacy typically express their beliefs in four ways:
1) Celibacy doesn’t work.
The urtext about gay Orthodox celibacy is probably Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo’s rejection of its feasibility in an interview for the 2001 film Trembling Before G-d. Jerusalem’s Rabbi Cardozo, a prominent Orthodox thinker, told the filmmaker “it is not possible for the Torah to come and ask a person to do something that he is not able to do. Theoretically speaking, it would be better for the homosexual to live a life of celibacy. I just would argue one thing – it’s completely impossible. It doesn’t work. The human force of sexuality is so big that it can’t be done.”
One problem: that quote doesn’t represent Cardozo’s actual beliefs. He told me via E-mail he was deeply disturbed that the filmmakers “took a lot out of context and did not fully express my thoughts.” He said he knows some gay people can live celibate lives, which he said he greatly respects.
In a well-publicized essay, “Homosexuals in the Orthodox Community,” Rabbi Zev Farber wrote that celibacy for gay men is unrealistic, even impossible – “a debilitating and life-crushing prospect. Advocating for it is an exercise in futility.”
No, it’s not futile. I know – through Internet, phone, and in-person contacts – several other men with gay orientations who have refrained from sex for years. There are certainly many others who are so private that they would never discuss such matters, even anonymously. Does Rabbi Farber think I’m telling the truth when I say I stopped having sex with men well over a decade ago? Or, like Rabbi Greenberg, can he only justify his belief system by suggesting I’m deceiving him or myself?
I have no tolerance for reparative therapy or the other nonsense peddled by the malicious, halachically ignorant hucksters running “Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality” (JONAH) and their naïve rabbinic endorsers. I fully accept that being gay is not freely chosen or willfully changed. But Orthodox Jews make decisions all the time about whether and how to express intimacy. In fact, the frum men with the most intense biological drives – those in their teens and early twenties – are precisely the ones we expect to completely repress their sexualities for years. For gay men, eschewing intercourse is much more achievable (and consistent with Torah values) than developing a genuine heterosexual orientation.
But wait – the comparison isn’t reasonable, right? Straight frum men can at least foresee a future with licit sexual expression, and gays cannot. Well, I certainly empathize – I’ve been there, remember?
Surely gays who try to be celibate could learn from the experiences of people in 12-step programs (and no, homosexuality is not an addiction) who have shared their experience, strength, and hope that people can best overcome nearly uncontrollable cravings by focusing on one day at a time. People in recovery who swear they’ll never abuse substances again are precisely those who return to old behaviors, because they’re not constantly working on themselves (teshuvah, anyone?).
Also, a man can’t “lose his celibacy” the way he can lose his virginity. If he has a rare slip, he can always do teshuvah and go right back to being celibate with no hypocrisy or inconsistency.
2) Celibacy is theologically untenable.
Orthodox advocacy of any kind of legitimate gay sexual activity requires much theological creativity. Two explicit verses in Leviticus forbid mishkav zachar, and the Talmud and later halachic sources have been unanimous in rejecting any form of congress at all between two men.
Sometimes, supporters of looser approaches say a loving God would never make such demands. Rabbi Farber’s essay echoed an approach originally proposed by Rabbi Norman Lamm in 1974: that homosexuality is covered by the rabbinic dictum “oness rachmana patrei” (God excuses compelled people). Rabbi Lamm’s argument considered the typical case of homosexuality to be a sickness, but Rabbi Farber stretched the same halachic category to explain why he’s not troubled by homosexually active frum men, since they “really have no choice” other than same-sex behavior.
Though the oness concept usually applies to those in a momentary lack of control (like sick people requesting food on Yom Kippur), Rabbi Farber extended it to people with a gay orientation because, he said, celibacy is different from “moment by moment abstinence.” A gay man’s compulsion, he wrote, “derives from the cumulative weight of the totality of the moments of a person’s life, an absolutely crushing weight in this case.”
And in a letter to a Jewish newspaper, Rabbi Farber actually called the idea of insisting on abstinence from gay sex “morally absurd.” Orthodox Jews believe God is moral, the Torah comes from God, and the Torah universally forbids gay relations. What part of that sentence does Rabbi Farber disagree with?
Orthodox Rabbi Hyim Shafner told a newspaper that being gay was “the same thing theologically” as having an allergy to unleavened bread: “God commanded them to eat matzah on Passover, but they can’t do it.”
Many openly gay Orthodox laypeople say they feel similarly. For example, at a Yeshiva University public forum, undergraduate Avi Kopstick said he didn’t understand how a compassionate religion could cause so much suffering: “Hashem made me so that the only way I can ever feel loved, happy, and whole is to be with another man, and then He tells me to abstain from it?”
Kopstick’s question is good, but not necessarily unanswerable. While I don’t think being gay is a choice, I’m not 100 percent sure God actually “makes” people gay, either. Being gay could be some combination of biological composition, social and cultural environment, and a bunch of little decisions along life’s course.
Or maybe it is unanswerable, like the broader question of why good people suffer at all. Part of the Orthodox Weltanschauung involves sometimes wondering about, but still accepting, aspects of our tradition that have no simple answers. Religious Jews don’t challenge a commandment because a tsunami destroys a town, or even because Jews once suffocated in gas chambers. So why does the confluence of one mitzvah and one sexual orientation lead to such distress within Orthodoxy?
Straight people who speak piously about how only a cruel God would forbid gay sex unwittingly condescend. I don’t believe God is cruel. Many of my fellow frum gay men – celibate or not – have reconciled homosexuality with Orthodox beliefs without questioning the divinity of any mitzvot. Why can’t everyone else?
Rabbi Chaim Rapoport (author of the only good book I’ve read about this subject – Judaism and Homosexuality: An Authentic Orthodox View) pointed out to me the irony that both Orthodox Jews who demand reparative therapy and totally permissive Reform Jews find profound theological challenges in the idea that God allows gays no possible romantic life. Such Orthodox Jews deny that true gays exist, but maintain the prohibition, whereas Reform Jews maintain that gays exist, but deny the prohibition. Both are wrong – gays exist, as does the prohibition.
3) Other mitzvot trump celibacy.
Other rhetoric doesn’t dispute the mitzvah to refrain from gay sex, but instead stresses that other commandments point in a different direction.
During a talk on gay marriage at the Orthodox Union’s Jerusalem center, Touro College Prof. David Luchins thundered about people who ignore “one little verse in Leviticus.” Once he had convinced the audience he was referring to the prohibition of mishkav zachar, he revealed he was actually discussing “v’ahavta l’reecha kamocha” – love your neighbor as yourself.
Similarly, open lesbian Aviva Buck-Yael once boasted of her Orthodox community that observes halacha but also reveres the “morality” that comes from religious belief and behavior. That means, she said, truly embracing two notions: loving your neighbor, and being created in God’s image. As such, “we all need to be treated as holy beings,” and the stage was set to welcome and embrace a “queer Jew” into the community.
But loving one’s neighbors and recognizing they reflect God are not reasons to overlook halachic transgressions. Instead, they’re reasons to embrace such people and encourage them to come closer to the tradition.
Homosexual acts appear sui generis to those who simply cannot imagine another aveirah (transgression) deserving the same kind of mitigation. They’re offended by comparisons to cheeseburgers, Shabbat, and adultery. But everyone encounters halacha differently. Sure, I’ve been challenged by various Torah restrictions, but who am I to label my obstacles “the worst”? In fact, when straight people declare my nisayon (spiritual test) greater than any they could possibly face, I tend to wonder if they’re expressing more pity than admiration.
4) Celibacy demands have terrible consequences.
The most alarming defense of gay Orthodox men being sexually active is that affirming and perhaps celebrating homosexual relations is the only way to protect the religiosity, welfare, and even the lives of frum gays – especially teenagers. Rabbi Farber said pressuring frum gays to be celibate makes some of them leave Orthodoxy. Worse, he wrote, “if the guilt or dissonance is too great, they may turn to drugs, extreme promiscuity or even suicide. This is not at all what we want to accomplish.”
And Rabbi Greenberg warned that “if a 16-year-old wants to know what God wants of her or him, and the answer we provide is lifelong celibacy and shame, that’s a formula for self-destructive behavior. It’s just not a credible response.”
Now, this subject is quite touchy, and I don’t want to be misinterpreted. But suicide seems to be the trump card advocates of Orthodox change on homosexuality play when they’re losing the debate or just want to close the deal.
Of course it’s terrible when someone experiences any sort of depression, self-loathing, or life-threatening behavior. The Orthodox community must start treating mental health as the normal but urgent subject it is. Respectful, compassionate counseling needs to be easily obtainable by any frum person struggling with homosexuality – or any other deeply felt personal issue, for that matter.
But in the context of reasoned debate about Orthodox approaches to homosexuality, stressing that gays can and do take their own lives is dirty pool. When gay people make that case, on some level they’re threatening, “Give me what I want, or I’ll kill myself.” Worse, when straight people bring up gay suicide, it can come across as patronizing and homophobic. Yes, there is too much gay teen suicide, but is that evidence gays are so weak-willed and pathetic that an explicit Torah command must be abrogated to spare our delicate sensitivities?
Instead, maybe part of the despair frum gay teens feel relates to a lack of models for halachic celibacy. No matter how many LGBT shuls they daven at, no matter how many young men they date, no matter how much gay ideology they swallow, they are still going to know that Jewish law rejects expression of their most basic sexual desires. So instead of developing supposedly “healthy” identities as otherwise fully Orthodox, sexually active gay men, they need help adopting as many attitudes and behaviors consistent with halacha as possible.
Now, I never attempted suicide. Perhaps that’s because, unguided, I found satisfactory Orthodox answers to questions like “Why did God make me this way?” and “What should I do about my sexual desires?” Given the limited public discussion about frum sexual identity, it wouldn’t be fair to expect appropriate responses from everyone feeling angst or despair about their own homosexuality. So we ought to find ways to help them.
Imagine, as just one example, a moderated, confidential E-mail listserv for young men struggling with homosexuality – a safe, low-pressure environment for learning about Jewish law and ideas and their practical applications for people who need guidance in making good Jewish decisions about sexuality. Would Orthodox gay teen suicides go up because of such a program? I think they’d go down, perhaps way down.
What if celibacy is beyond reach?
Clearly, the arguments advanced by rabbis like Farber and Greenberg for increased tolerance of gay male sexual aveirot are inconsistent with our tradition. But also problematic is the practical advice they give to those who feel they just can’t be successful at refraining from same-sex relations.
Rabbi Greenberg’s message to young men who “cannot” be celibate without engaging in self-harm is to “find a partner, join a shul and seek a way to make a family.“
And on the Morethodoxy blog, Rabbi Shafner said it might be “better for gay Orthodox Jews (at least those who cannot be celibate and still keep the rest of the Torah with joy) to be in monogamous relationships which are the most observant ones they can be.”
I’m not so sure. Certain mitzvot are indeed beyond some people’s capabilities. But that’s no excuse for building a public identity or a committed relationship out of one’s halachic shortcomings. Some Orthodox gays insist that coming out is not a proclamation of sexual activity; it’s rather an affirmation of their internal makeups. But Judaism forbids marit ayin – even giving a hint of violating halacha. So coming out of the closet without clarifying that one is celibate really isn’t kosher.
So what should a frum gay man who simply cannot achieve celibacy do? Actually, our tradition has addressed such questions. In the Gemara (Masechet Moed Katan 17a), Rabbi Il’ai states that if a man’s urges to see a prostitute overcome him, he should wear black, go to a place where he’s anonymous, and do what he must – so there’s no chilul Hashem (desecration of God’s name). That teaching shouldn’t be taken as a literal prescription for gay men looking for a legitimate sexual outlet. But it shows that the Torah doesn’t consider sexual behavior to be “all or nothing,” and that Jews should seek to attenuate sexual transgressions.
Indeed, there are vastly more possibilities than the three choices many Orthodox gay men describe: promiscuity, partnered sex, and total celibacy. Every frum gay man should seek rabbinic counsel before determining his approach to private behavior. But here’s an example of something for which a gay man might request a heter: hiring a professional, straight, non-erotic massage therapist in order to experience occasional male touch. It’s not ideal because it could lead to arousal, but it’s definitely better than actual sexual encounters – whether with a life partner or a stranger.
Speaking of which, should a gay guy who feels he cannot remain celibate choose a private, exclusive bond with one man over occasional, discreet hookups with strangers? It probably depends on what “a private, exclusive bond” and “occasional, discreet hookups” mean. Such topics are precisely why Orthodox Jews go to their rabbis for halachic advice.
A message for Orthodox gays
Here’s my message for frum gay men:
For men like us, following Jewish law about sexuality is an enormous struggle which often takes place without much sympathy or support. God loves us even when we cannot understand why He would limit our sexual options. Ideally, we’ll never have any sort of intimate contact with other men. But any exceptions should be as infrequent as possible, with as few halachic violations as possible. Be especially careful to avoid mishkav zachar. The process of teshuvah exists precisely so people in such situations can pick themselves up, rectify their behavior, and move on. Take advantage of it.
By contrast, Rabbi Greenberg says he tells young gay men looking for halachic advice that “if you find a committed monogamous partner and avoid anal intercourse, you are better off halachically speaking than all the Orthodox Jews you know who do not keep the niddah (menstrual purity) laws.”
Rabbi Greenberg’s comment probably refers to the d’rabbanan (rabbinic) prohibition of non-mishkav zachar gay bedroom activities, as opposed to the d’oreita (written Torah) prohibition of sex with a woman during niddah. But no man makes niddah sex a public lifestyle, with a self-satisfied “Tum’at Hamishpacha” (“Family Impurity”) identity, beaming with pride as he parades his aveirot through the streets of New York City with his significant other – which Rabbi Greenberg has in fact done.
That kind of chillul Hashem is absolutely an aveirah d’oreita (see Leviticus 22:32).
In any event, I don’t agree with rabbis like Greenberg who treat Leviticus 18:22 as the main text limiting sexuality to male-female marriage. It isn’t. It’s Genesis 2:24 – “Therefore, a man shall leave his father and his mother, and cleave to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”
The Torah’s initial chapters describe God’s first human creation as two-gendered. Then, thinking it wasn’t good for man to be alone, God split that androgynous creature into two separate beings: one male and one female. Jewish tradition considers licit sexual expression to be the restoration of our bodies to that initial state of unity. That’s simply impossible for a coupling with anatomical duplications.
Of course, those of us who feel incapable of that kind of arrangement face a challenge. But a frum gay man still has lots of choices to help alleviate the strain of trying to follow halacha. Here are three:
• Establish close non-sexual relationships with other men, especially straight men. Judaism already has a meaningful model for close, non-homoerotic relationships between men: the chavruta (study partner). Two men who grapple over difficult texts can bond intellectually and emotionally. Some married frum men say their chavrutas understand them better than their wives do. Men with gay inclinations can find an imperfect but meaningful substitute for some of their cravings for male companionship through sharing intense encounters with our sources. After all, the Torah’s verbs for to know and “to know” are precisely the same.
Similarly, friendships with other men outside the bedroom and Beit Midrash (study hall) can help keep a frum gay man sane. If the relationship leads to excessive sexual interest, it’s probably ill-considered. But if the bonding simply helps satisfy a man’s deep desire for a link with another male, it could be a very good idea.
• Embrace other mitzvot. Long before conforming to all halachic demands about homosexuality, someone could prioritize scrupulous observance of mitzvot unrelated to being gay, such as Torah study.
For centuries, some respected Jews have put learning, not family, at the center of their lives. For example, second-century sage Shimon ben Azzai never married. The Talmud (Yevamot 63b) said of him, “What could he do? His soul desired Torah, so he let the world continue through someone else.” And kabbalist Yonatan ben Uziel is said to have never married because he preferred to devote all his time to learning. To this day unmarried Jews make pilgrimages to his gravesite in Tzfat to pray for shidduchim (matrimonial matches).
Some more recent Torah dignitaries have also remained unmarried, such as 19th century physicians Simeon Abrahams and Moshe Wallach. They invested their energies in caring for fellow Jews, participating in important medical-halachic debates, and building hospitals.
• Find ways to pass Jewish values on to the next generation. In 1998, Rabbi Aharon Feldman, now rosh yeshiva of one of America’s leading yeshivot – Ner Yisrael – wrote a thoughtful, compassionate, and well-publicized letter to a gay baal teshuvah. He told the young man he could maintain celibacy by, essentially, being married to the Jewish people. He suggested, for example, “bringing Judaism to smaller communities where there are no facilities for raising a Jewish family,” or traveling to raise funds for Jewish organizations.
Further, he wrote:
“Sexual activity, by which the family unit can be built, is only one of the activities with which a man can serve God. But someone who does not have this capacity still has a whole life and unlimited opportunities to serve God.”
You may have noticed that “get married” isn’t on my list. That’s not because marriage is always wrong for same-sex attracted Jews. In fact, if someone is truly bisexual, marriage seems to be the only acceptable Jewish option. Further, lifelong celibacy for a gay man is a minority opinion in Jewish law, and I don’t think any Jewish man should permanently forswear marriage without discussing it with his rabbi. But I also agree with Rabbi Rapoport that anyone contemplating such a marriage must proceed carefully, and disclose his orientation to his potential wife.
Truthfully, I would have preferred continuing my years-long approach of not publicly discussing my gay identity. But I take some inspiration from what may be the key moment in Megillat Esther, when Mordechai urges Esther to visit King Ahasuerus to plead for the Jewish people’s preservation: “Who knows whether it’s for a time like this that you reached royalty?”
Mordechai’s question suggests a role for someone with my background in the frum debate over homosexuality. I cannot speak for anyone but myself; still, perhaps my thoughts can provide a fuller picture of the broad spectrum of experiences of Orthodox gays.
E-mail David Benkof at DavidBenkof@gmail.com or follow him on Facebook.