To say I am reluctant to discuss this subject is an understatement. It always presents challenges. Especially from people who are gay. Some of them get upset with me. And I can’t really blame them.
Being gay in the Orthodox world is not easy. This is a subject that I have discussed many times. My attitude about it is can be summed up in a phrase I have often heard used by Fundamentalist Christians, ‘Love the sinner, hate the sin’. To briefly re-state my views here – I understand that nature of sexual attraction is at best difficult to control. Most people are attracted to members of the opposite sex. But some people are attracted to members of the same sex.
That in and of itself is not sinful. As a prominent celebrity once said about his own personal desires, ‘The heart wants what it wants’. We can’t really help who we are attracted to. God does not punish people for having inclinations. Although Chazal do tell us to stay away from those things that may precipitate sin. But if being gay is defined as having a same sex attraction, there is no shame in that. People have to be respected for who they are. Nor are we permitted to judge what we presume goes on behind closed doors. First of all we don’t know. And second of all, that is God’s domain. Not ours.
Nonetheless, we are required to respect the Torah point of view with respect to forbidden sexual relationships. So that the male homosexual act (male to male anal sex) is to be considered as sinful as the Torah says it is. ‘Love the sinner, hate the sin’.
I bring all this up in light of a troubling new article in Tablet Magazine. It describes the efforts of a young woman who is trying to gain acceptance for the gay community in Yeshiva University circles.‘Out, Proud, and Kinda Loud at Yeshiva University’, says the title of the article. And the subtitle: Students are challenging the Modern Orthodox school’s traditional stance on LGBT issues.
There are apparently a few students at YU that are gay and are apparently hurt by the lack of acceptance. However, when we start hearing the word ‘proud’ as part of the lexicon, it raises a red flag with me. Tolerance, acceptance, and love is one thing. Treating people with dignity despite their sexual orientation is indeed a basic Jewish tenet. It is called Kavod HaBriyos – honoring all of God’s creations. But being proud of having sinful desires crosses the line from tolerance to honor. We do not honor sinful desires regarding sex anymore than we should honor sinful desires to do any sinful act. Whether it be murder or cheating on your taxes.
It is difficult to know where to draw the line between honoring the sinner and not the sin. What if someone openly flouts his sinful acts? Should we honor that individual? My answer is an unequivocal no. We should not. Flagrant and open violations of Halacha are never to be honored. Even if those doing them are not aware of how sinful those acts are. Tolerance does not mean honoring sin.
What’s troubling to me about all this is that idea of normalizing a gay lifestyle – treating it as a lifestyle choice same as a heterosexual lifestyle. Besides, not all heterosexual lifestyles are acceptable. The only heterosexual lifestyle Halachicly sanctioned is one where a man and woman are married and they observe the laws of Taharas HaMishpacha (family purity).
That said, we do not see what goes on behind closed doors. We have no clue whether a husband and wife completely observe those laws. But at least it is very possible and even likely that observant married couples do observe those laws and have a Halachicly permitted sexual relationship. But when 2 men live together, any kind of sexual relationship between them that involves spilling seed is not Halachicly permitted. So the two scenarios cannot be compared. They are not the same. One should not be proud of living that lifestyle. Nor should we honor it.
I should add that we still have no right to judge what people do behind closed doors. Unless we see a flagrant public violation we have no right to assume anything. Or to say or do anything. But at the same time we must never say that gay equals straight. It does not.
I say this not to be hard on those in Orthodoxy that are gay. I say it only to honor the Torah’s admonition against any non Halachic sexual act. We must never honor the sin. Completely normalizing the gay lifestyle implies acceptance of a sinful act same as it does a non sinful act. Which is why I am opposed to gay marriage. Gay marriage explicitly legitimizes it and implicitly normalizes it. Legal issues with respect equalizing the rights of a gay couple with the rights of a married heterosexual couple can be worked out in a civil society without the imprimatur of marriage.
I know that gay people want to be treated like normal human beings – equal with everyone else. And they should be. But if we are going to honor the Torah we have to draw a line. If one is gay he has to understand that gay sex is still sinful. No amount of societal acceptance is going to change that. Tolerance should not suggest pride. Tolerance means acceptance of the individual and honoring him for the content of his character.
I can only imagine how difficult it is to be gay in a straight world. There is still a lot of prejudice out there that manifests itself in intolerance and even hatred. That can be very discouraging. It can and in many cases probably has caused a religious gay Jew to reject Halachic observance or worse send them into severe depression and even attempts at suicide in some cases.
But gay Jews need not give up on being devoutly religious. On the contrary. Gay Jews can be as devoutly religious as anyone else. True they have a great challenge to overcome. And they may sometimes fail – as we all do. But that should not mean abandoning observance.
An observant gay Jew that sometimes fails in their observance should never mean rejection by the heterosexual mainstream. Any of us – gay or straight – if we transgress, we do Teshuva and start again. God understands human nature and we all sin. We all have our own individual challenges. Which is why He gave us the means to repent and grant us forgiveness. We need not be ashamed of who we are no matter what our sexual orientation is. Only about what we do – if it is sinful.