Quite by happenstance (or perhaps serendipity), I recently discovered a lovely commentary on Pirkei Avot by Prof. Avigdor Shinan. In his commentary on Avot 5:10, Prof. Shinan writes about Sodom’s sins of “pride, arrogance, exploitation of the weak, and gratuitous cruelty.” (Any errors in translation from the Hebrew are solely mine.) As an example of a particular instance of the last sin, Prof. Shinan cites the midrash about how the Sodomites treated overnight guests: They provided a standard size bed, and helped the guest “fit” the bed by stretching or amputating their limbs, rather than finding a bed that fit the guest. This treatment, while intended by the Sodomites to be fair and non-discriminatory – after all, overnight guests were all given the same sized bed – was really an instance of not seeing the individual for who they are. Not being able to see each individual as unique is, in Prof. Shinan’s opinion, a quintessential example of gratuitous cruelty.
Recently, a rabbinic colleague of mine authored a post about Orthodox communal attitudes towards our gay (and lesbian, and bisexual, and queer, and transgender) friends, neighbors, and family members. He writes, “[…] my concern is that when people who identify as progressive Orthodox clergy defend and welcome open expression of homosexual identity in Jewish religious practice, it conveys a sense of acceptance of homosexual conduct.”
In his post, my colleague confuses affirmation of identity with condoning non-halakhic behavior. One of the fundamental tenets of our religion is that identity does not dictate destiny – behavior does. An individual with any particular identity has the means within Jewish law to behave in a manner consistent with the law and to honor and respect their individual identity. Denial, rather than affirmation, of one’s core identity is likely to ultimately lead to an inability to live a life in concordance with Jewish law, as well as terrible suffering and loneliness of the individual who is encouraged to engage in that denial. It is this form of denial of an individual’s unique identity that Avot 5:10 calls an “attribute of Sodom.”
The Rabbinic Council of America distanced itself from so-called conversion or reparative therapy for gays many years ago, recognizing that being gay is a matter of identity, rather than a choice of behavior. The RCA correctly recognizes that Jewish law dictates behavior, not identity. Other rabbis, like my colleague, confuse identity and behavior, and treat being gay as a matter of choice rather than identity. They insist on shaming gays for who they are, rather than what they might do, and engage in an astounding desecration of God and God’s holy Torah.
I am not gay. Since I do not have that particular life experience, I am reluctant to speak up about gays and on their behalf. Nonetheless, as a rabbi, unfortunately I am compelled to speak out from time to time on issues of injustice and desecration of God’s name. This is one of those times. Rather than engaging my colleague and others of his ilk, I will speak directly to you, my dear gay neighbors, friends, acquaintances, and not-yet acquaintances.
To be able to live a spiritually fulfilling life, and to be able to live that life in concordance with Jewish law, one must strive to come to terms with whoever they are. I cannot see how that will ever happen when we insist on denying your identity in ways large and small, and shaming you for who you are, in ways large and small. Denying your identity, and shaming you, in order to make you fit our preconceived notions of how you ought to participate in our communities, is tantamount to amputating or stretching out your limbs. It is gratuitously cruel. Whatever else may be true, you are created in the image of God, and you deserve to be treated as such at all times and in all places.
Being gay and observing Jewish law certainly is a mighty challenge. As a rabbi, it is my job to listen to you and understand who you are and where you are coming from. It is to affirm your identity and to help you be comfortable with that identity, whatever it may be. It is to encourage you to follow the dictates of Jewish law. And it is to recognize that the disconnect between who you are and what Jewish law might require of you can be painful. I have no magic wand to wave away the very grave strictures against certain types of homosexual behavior and the pain it might cause you; I do, however, pledge to do my best to recognize their impact on your spiritual and emotional well-being and to do my best to ameliorate that impact.
In closing, I express my faith that God gives each of us all the tools that we need to affirm our identity and to live fulfilling and meaningful lives in a manner that is fully in concordance with Jewish law. It may be such that living in 5779/2018, it is difficult for us to see how the above statement might be true for someone who is gay. Our inability to see that such a statement might be true in no way detracts from its fundamental truth.