Seventeen years ago I was the president of the board of a small conservative synagogue in Nevada. During my tenure and through the following year, the Conservative Movement’s law committee voted to allow for the ordination of clergy who identified as gay. At the time there was considerable turmoil over this decision. In response, I recall that some eleven of us fellow presidents from the more traditional synagogues were communicating via a listserve and wondering whether we should move our synagogues out of the movement. The movement dispatched Rabbi Roth to speak with us. Rabbi Roth said that if traditional congregations leave the movement, who would be left to support more traditional views? In a video that was sent, we watched a debate between Rabbi Roth and Rabbi Dorf. Rabbi Roth spoke against the proposal because he did not see a halachic basis for the decision Rabbi Dorf, who admitted to having a daughter who identified as a lesbian, compared the Torah to the bones of a fish which has died. As I recall, he said the molecules of the fish were all there, the bones were just taking a different form.
His response concerned some of us greatly as this was not the rock of truth we understood the Torah to be. And if the Rabbis felt the Torah was wrong about this then what else is it wrong about and where then is the divinity of the text? At the end of the day, we were unable to move our congregation out of the movement for a variety of reasons and our family and others moved on to become more traditionally observant and leave the Conservative movement.
Our family ended up moving across the country to a larger Jewish community on the east coast where we became involved with more observant Sephardic and Ashkenazi synagogues and our children enrolled in traditionally observant Jewish schools.
After moving east, in my secular workplace, I had close colleagues who identified as gay. We had open discussions on religion and sexual preference, nature vs nurture and never with any animosity. I reconnected with several friends with grown gay children and even relatives in my own family. It was quite a contrast to traditional Torah values which had so concerned us. HaShem had put us on an interesting journey.
All of this made me dig deeper in understanding this most challenging of issues. What precisely does the Torah say? Is gay an unchangeable characteristic like skin color or is there choice involved and if so how much choice? (If there is no choice, what does that say about the Torah?) Are there any environmental conditions which encourage a gay identity? Does it matter if it is nature or nurture? Given those answers, how are we to treat those whom we care about deeply who identify as gay?
What does the Torah say?
I am not a Rabbi, just an observant Jew, but here is my understanding. The Torah seems to be crystal clear. Male homosexuality is not permitted. At the time of the Sanhedrin, it was punishable by the stiffest of penalties. This law is read during the afternoon service of Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, a day of spiritual cleansing. Proper sexual behavior is also one of the seven laws of Noah which, per the Torah, everyone, regardless of faith, should keep. In the oral law, there are many specific references in Kiddushin. Chullin 92b includes an argument from one Rabbi — that perhaps there are really only three Noahide laws which all people need to observe, not seven. What is the first of the three? Do not allow marriage certificates between men. As for Jewish women, my understanding of the Torah is that they should not be engaged in lesbian behavior because we Jews don’t imitate the practices of the Egyptians.
Is there an element of choice involved?
My understanding is as follows: There is no doubt predisposition as there is in all human attributes; e.g., disposition, anger, joviality, addictive behavior, etc. Because sexual drive is so powerful, it is a predisposition that is very difficult to control and direct. Yet I haven’t heard of strong evidence to suggest that “gay” has a genetic basis in the same category as skin color.
I have read about several contributing environmental factors: 1) Having been involved in a homosexual relationship or abused at a young age, 2) Being placed in an environment where this behavior is celebrated. (During the time of the Greeks, a very significant percentage of the population lived this lifestyle because it was a lifestyle which was honored.), 3) Having a distant parent of the same sex and an overbearing parent of the opposite sex.
From my limited discussions with friends and family, it seems that a combination of the some of the above factors along with predisposition, encourage a person to live a gay lifestyle. Some of those I have spoken with do not feel that they had a choice because of experiences early in life.
Love and Compassion vs. Celebration
Our Rabbis tell us to exhibit love and compassion for all, including those who identify as gay. Perhaps HaShem has placed our family close to colleagues, friends and relatives for this reason; to ensure we maintain a compassionate outlook. Yet it seems to me that absent a Sanhedrin, the Torah clearly draws the line in opposition to participation in pride parades and celebration of life-cycle events of those who identify as gay.
Through our life path I believe we have found some measure of clarity on this most difficult of issues in our current culture, given the Torah’s admonishments. They are not mutually exclusive: 1) We honor and uphold the eternal truth of the Torah. 2) We show love and compassion irrespective of whether the factors are due to nature or nurture but without crossing the line and celebrating those living a gay life.
In a backhanded way I actually appreciate how this issue has directed us to be both more observant and more empathetic. Interestingly enough, I have run into other families who have both increased their observance level and are more empathetic due to similar responses and experiences. Ours is a story that is not often told but seems to be repeating itself throughout the Jewish world: increasing observance and sensitivity due to this most difficult issue. HaShem works in mysterious ways and most often under the radar.