Orthodox, gay, and the rest is private

Publicly declaring one's celibacy is immodest and preaching one answer for all is inhumane

First I’d like to congratulate and thank David Benkof for courageously being out of the closet and talking about his gay identity so publicly while still working in the Orthodox Jewish community. I hope David’s bravery and the corresponding compassionate communal reception to his article empower more LGBT Jews to come out of their respective closets. This is no small feat.

As Co-Executive Director of JQY, an organization that provides support for LGBT Youth in the Orthodox and Hassidic community, I have come to appreciate that there is no process that creates more impact, change, and understanding than LGBT Jews coming out to their friends, family and leaders. Statistics tell us that there is likely at least one LGBT person in every extended Frum (Orthodox) family. In an Orthodoxy where everyone personally knows someone who is LGBT, there is hope for more kindness, love and dignity extended to every Jew. Consequently, Benkof deserves credit for telling his story.

However, with respect to Benkof’s publicly divulging personal choices about his own sexual behavior, I am of two minds. On the one hand I have great respect for anyone who sacrifices that much to live up to his religious ideals. Self control and discipline in abiding to one’s understanding of halacha (Jewish law) are hallmarks of Orthodoxy. His dedication seems heroic. On the other hand his public declaration of personal celibacy strikes me as particularly out of place in Orthodox public discourse. It seems almost Un-tzniut (immodest) to need to tell the world about the sexual behaviors in which you do not engage. It reminded me of an incident that I experienced back in Orthodox Yeshiva when I was fifteen.

Every Friday my Rebbe would give a mussar shmooze (life lecture) about the ethical importance of resisting the sexual temptation of girls. Although the Rebbe took a hard line on these issues, my classmates actually really enjoyed the Friday shmoozes because it seemed to validate the normalcy of their adolescent hormonal experiences. One Friday a boy raised his hand and announced to the class that despite his feeling incredibly tempted by his yetzer harah (evil inclination) for women, he had succeeded in not Masturbating this week. The students didn’t quite know how to react.

The Rebbe softy responded, “My child, nobody asked, and nobody should ever ask you to say such a thing in public.” He continued, “We all have sexual desires and there should be no shame about that, but whether you do or do not act on those desires is between you and Hashem (G-d) and not the business of the entire class. You are welcome to speak to a rabbi privately about your individual struggle with shfichas zerah (spilling seed), but this shmooze is not the appropriate forum.” This distinction between publicly validating human sexuality while maintaining discretion about one’s personal sexual behavior was an important lesson that my Rebbe was conveying.

Our Orthodox tradition has taught us that even when a married couple is abstaining from sex due to menstrual bleeding, the couple should avoid being publicly obvious in this separation. Discretion is still expected when avoiding sexual activity. Even an agunah (a chained woman to a husband who will not or cannot grant a divorce), who is tragically halachically (lawfully) forbidden to remarry or be romantic with another man, does not go around broadcasting her sexual celibacy to the world. Similarly, an Orthodox gay man would not be expected to divulge what sexual behaviors he abstains from.

My assumption is that Benkof writes about his personal celibacy because of two intended implications. The first is that by asserting the reality of his own thirteen year celibacy, it somehow challenges and disproves the various public positions of Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, Rabbi Zev Farber, Rabbi Norman Lamm, Rabbi Steven Greenberg, Rabbi Jay Michaelson, Prof. David Luchins, Rabbi Hyim Shafner, Aviva Yael Buck and YU College Student Avi Kopstick. The second implication is that because he can be celibate for thirteen years after a life of homosexual activity, that it is appropriate to expect other gay Jews to be celibate. It turns out that both of these implications are plainly wrong, misguided, irrational, and pretty insulting.

Basic logic tells us that Benkof’s proclaimed celibacy does not disprove any of the arguments that he quotes. The ethical call for compassion, welcoming, kindness and civil equality for gays is not challenged because David Benkof hasn’t had gay sex in thirteen years. No one has asserted against the possibility that there may be a gay man in this world who maintains thirteen years of abstinence. Not one of these rabbis’ positions relied upon absolutist thinking. They were either speaking in general terms about what is realistic for the vast majority of people, or from their own personal experience. Reducing other people’s positions to absolutisms is a disingenuous tactic. By pretending that his experience somehow refutes anyone, Benkof is simply creating a straw man to knock down.

Furthermore, it should be noted that with the exception of Greenberg and Michaelson (who use exegesis to reinterpret the prohibition, not ‘impossible celibacy’) none of the Orthodox rabbis mentioned by Benkof argue that homosexual sex is permissible under Jewish Law. Advocating for realistic rabbinic responses, civil equality and kindness towards people is not the same thing as saying that gay sex is not halachically problematic. These rabbis are finding nuance in a dialectic that pits our sense of ethics against our blind acceptance of biblical prohibitions. Benkof either misunderstands or is purposefully misrepresenting their positions. His preoccupation with going after any Orthodox rabbi that calls for compassion or understanding for LGBT people in Orthodoxy is disconcerting and telling. In addition, Benkof does not help his case by using ad-hominem attacks and being disrespectful to those he disagrees with.

Internal inconsistencies also plague Benkof’s own position on what he claims is prohibited for gay Orthodox men. He dismisses the possibility of there being any gray area for same sex intimacy and zealously describes the only acceptable halachic position as no sexual contact whatsoever between two men. However, it seems that Benkof alone is allowed to decide what constitutes sexual content and what does not. Later on in the article he oddly advocates for “celibate” gay men to hire “professional, straight, non-erotic massage therapists in order to experience occasional male touch.” So according to Benkof, tricking a straight male masseuse to satisfy a sexually frustrated gay man’s need for male touch is NOT sexual contact and is halachically permissible, but kissing the man you love when he comes home from work is absolutely forbidden. Not only is this a ridiculous formulation, it is downright creepy.

I sincerely hope Orthodox rabbis and parents do not use Benkof’s isolated experience as ammunition to punish or to judge other gay Jews. All studies show that abstinence-only messages do not work and actually increase irresponsible sexual behavior. Yes, there are some gay people who claim to be well adjusted and celibate. There are even others with more fluid sexualities who claim to have had success in changing their orientations. No one’s experiences should feel silenced, erased or invalidated. However, this does not mean that these exceptional approaches are right for everyone. They are not. Ultimately this is still an area that Orthodox rabbis do not have a simple answer for. It is essential that we do not let the experiences of some create an unreasonable pressure for all. Instead, every Jew needs to feel empowered to find what is right for them. That is what developing a personal relationship with an understanding Orthodox rabbi is all about. There will be different private rabbinic responses for different people. What may be right for you is likely not the answer for someone else.

If there is one thing that we can learn from David’s self proclaimed celibacy it is an important reminder that coming out as gay, no matter how publicly, does not actually imply any revelation about someone’s private sexual behavior. Like David, there are some gay men who do not have gay sex. There are even gay couples who do not have gay sex. We simply do not know what goes on behind closed doors, nor should we. Certainly, the same applies to straight people. Identifying with an orientation, community or kind of companionship does not necessarily imply any specific sexual activity.

Negotiating how to manifest intimacy and companionship is a very private and personal matter. It is really no one’s business what other people do or don’t do in bed. Just because someone may be gay, or even in a gay relationship does not suddenly make assumptions about their intimate behavior appropriate for public discourse. Sexualizing people and objectifying relationships, gay or straight, is simply presumptuous inappropriate and immodest.

These ethics of tzniut ring especially true in the Orthodox community. The Talmud makes this distinction clearly when it teaches that while it is a mitzvah for wedding guests to notice the beauty of the bride; it is a grievous sin for guests to imply that that the reason for the marriage is simply sexual congress. It is wrong to reduce people or their relationships to base sexual behaviors. It is wrong to surmise on the extent a married couple is keeping the halachic laws of sexual purity. When one introduces his spouse at an Orthodox shul, we do not question whether she uses a mikveh. We assume the best and relegate this issue to private consultations between the couple and their rabbi. The same thing applies to gay individuals and gay couples. Let them work privately with an Orthodox rabbi of their choosing to decide the specifics of their intimate relationship. Since we are neither in their shoes, nor do we know what is going on behind closed doors, we should not judge or make any assumptions as to the level of their sins.

Consequently the Orthodox community’s welcoming of gay people cannot be contingent upon knowing what a particular gay person does or doesn’t do in his bedroom. Compassion for the agunah is not dependent on her celibacy. Basic decency teaches that, not only would we never ask such questions; the answers to such curiosities are not the stuff of public discourse. That discussion is relegated to private rabbinic consultations which can result in various conclusions depending on the individual. So unless a gay person is openly explicit in engaging in sexual acts (indecent for anyone in an Orthodox context) there should be no communal necessity for public promulgations of celibacy or abstinence.

For all intents and purposes gay individuals and couples do not engage in public sexual congress any more than straight people do. So we need to stop comparing people who are out and honest about their identities to sinners like public Sabbath violators. All too often well meaning Orthodox rabbis use these harmful metaphors to frame an approach to gay people. The Sabbath violation analogy is absolutely wrong and illogical. Worse, is that comparing being out of the closet to public sinning sexualizes and objectifies gay people…often youth. When a Yeshiva High school student comes out of the closet, the expectations and assumptions about his sexual behavior should be no different than any of his straight classmates. Just like the straight kids in my Yeshiva wanted to feel validated and normal for being who they were (especially during awkward adolescent stages), gay kids strive for the same affirmation.

Unfortunately, for most Orthodox LGBT youth that affirmation is not available. Instead, it is replaced by shame, isolation, judgment and hopelessness. It is no wonder why Orthodox gay youth are at the highest risk for self harm and suicide (Bar Yosef, 2012). This is why it is most disturbing when David Benkof writes with such cynicism and snark about those who worry about the very real threat of depression and suicide that LGBT youth face in the Orthodoxy community. I have friends who have succumbed to this hopelessness and are no longer here to make their case. I know people who are alive today because of the outspoken compassion of the rabbis mentioned so callously by Benkof. The vulnerability of this population is not a tool or last resort used to win arguments or gain political points. It is a sad reality that some of us are working tirelessly to change.

At JQY we believe that creating hope for LGBT youth in the Orthodox world does not start with changing halacha, reinterpreting the Torah, or permitting sexual behavior. It begins with combating institutionalized shame and re-building a strong sense of self esteem. This is the true meaning of pride. It is not about celebrating one’s sexual behavior or even their particular sexual desires. We are not a gay community because we desire the same sexual things, but because we connect in similar formative experiences like feeling different, coming out to parents, being bullied in school, dealing with homophobia and zealotry, reconciling our identities with our faith, and fighting for our rights to equality and dignity. LGBT people share an experiential narrative and destiny. Pride is about affirming our self worth despite the challenges we face. So if “gay pride” confuses you, substitute the words “gay self-esteem”. Certainly, there is nothing un-tzniut about self-esteem.

My message to David and the readers is that if you sincerely are concerned with helping gay people in the Orthodox Community, stop worrying about what they are doing in the bedroom, and start thinking about how they may be feeling, what they may be dealing with, and what you can do to help. It is hard enough to be LGBT in the Orthodox community. There isn’t one answer or one proper derech (religious direction) that we can preach. Each person must find their unique path to fulfill their greatest potential. A supportive Orthodox rabbi can help guide this process, but only after he takes the time to get to know his LGBT constituent. Some people may be like David, but many will not. All we can do is be there to support each other with the humility and open-mindedness that comes with not having all the answers.

JQY yeshiva boys celebrate pride, New York, 2011 (Photo courtesy of JQY)
JQY marching in the Celebrate Israel Parade, New York, 2012 (Photo courtesy of JQY)

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About the Author
Mordechai Levovitz is a social worker and Co-Executive Director of JQY (Jewish Queer Youth) a non-profit organization that creates support and crisis resources for LGBT Jewish Youth and their families in the Orthodox and Hassidic community.