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The price of acceptance

For once and for all, outing yourself as gay does not mean you violate Jewish law! -- a message for Rabbi Goldberg

Rabbi Efrem Goldberg wrote an interesting article here entitled “Seeing the Rainbow in Grey Rather Than Black and White: LGBT & the Orthodox Community.” In it, he compares “Open Orthodox” rabbis who demand absolute and unconditional (and uncritical) acceptance of every dictate of the LGBT community to the brutish members of the Orthodox community who refer to Pride parades as toeiva (abomination) parades and publicly praise those who murder gay people.

The comparison is disgusting, of course. And I hope Rabbi Goldberg will clarify that he only meant it in the sense that both views are extreme, and was not actually comparing wanting to be treated like a human being with inciting violence and murder against others.

In that sense, though, there’s something to it. I am friends with people who, despite knowing that I’m gay, say the most despicable things about gay people right in front of me, and at the same time, I’m friends with people who wouldn’t surprise me if they started marching around shouting “Gay Power! Now!” No one on either side really wants to listen to anyone on the other.

But while Rabbi Goldberg seems to want to take a position in the middle, his way of doing it only reinforces the toeiva-shouters. He writes, “The Torah’s prohibitions in these areas are incontrovertible and non-negotiable. All the sympathy and sensitivity in the world cannot move us to be matir issurim, to permit that which our sacred Torah forbids. Undeniably, our rabbis have been tremendously critical of those who unabashedly flaunt a lifestyle inconsistent with halacha.”

When I got to this paragraph, I thought, “Here we go again.” Because while it’s true that Torah Judaism is never going to permit that which is forbidden (nor should it), saying “I am gay” is not the equivalent of saying “I engage in acts which are forbidden by Jewish law.” I’m going to repeat that, and put it in a big block quote, so that no one skimming this article can miss it.

Saying “I am gay” is not the equivalent of saying “I engage in acts which are forbidden by Jewish law.”

I understand that we live in an oversexed society, and that when you say you’re gay, people’s minds tend to go right to the bedroom. But it isn’t true, and it isn’t right. One of the reasons that a lot of us dislike the term “homosexual” is because of the emphasis on “sexual”. And while sexuality is an integral part of human life, being gay — like being straight — is not about who you have sex with. It’s about who you love. It’s about who you bond with in that way that everyone reading this (other than the very young or the very unlucky) has experienced. It’s not the love you have for a close friend. It’s not platonic. It’s a bond that goes so much deeper than that.

In 2013, a Republican state representative named Maureen Walsh gave a speech in favor of same-sex marriage. I can’t recommend highly enough that you watch this video and listen to what she had to say. She talks about her love for her late husband, and how it isn’t the sex that she misses. It’s the bond. And that is a bond that naturally happens to most people with members of the opposite sex. But for gay people, it happens to us with members of the same sex.

Does that sort of bond lead to sex? Usually, yes. Particularly in an era where everything is about sex. TV is about sex, movies are about sex, subway ads are about sex, song lyrics are about sex. It’s almost impossible to get away from the incessant flood of hypersexualization.

But Rabbi Goldberg is talking specifically about gay people who are sufficiently committed to halakha that they want to join an Orthodox synagogue. Gay people who love the Torah. Who love Judaism. Who, like every other Orthodox Jew on the planet — and throughout history — are willing to place God’s rules over their own desires.

And that’s where what Rabbi Goldberg says falls short. We don’t assume that people who make that commitment in their lives to Judaism — who demonstrate their fealty to the Torah and to God’s Will every single day — are violating it in secret. That’s not how Orthodox Judaism works. We actually have laws about when it is permissible to conclude that someone is in violation of Jewish law, and saying “I am gay” is not one of those cases.

(Yes, I am aware that there are certain rabbis on the far left who have argued that Jewish law actually permits certain acts that all other Orthodox Jews know are forbidden, and I can understand how hearing such things could make it harder to trust that a gay Orthodox Jew is observing Jewish law, but no matter how vocal such rabbis are, they speak only for themselves.)

And then Rabbi Goldberg goes to the “we’re all sinners” place. He writes, “Yet, it is also unquestionable that there are no perfect people and that everyone struggles with some aspect of the rigors and demands of halacha.”

How many times have I heard something like this? “Being gay isn’t any worse than desecrating Shabbat.” Or eating pork. Or any other violation of Jewish law. And while it’s true that being gay isn’t worse than those things, it is not even in the same category as those things. Being gay is not prohibited by Jewish law. Being gay is not even discouraged by Jewish law. The only way gay people are going to stop being abused by members of the Orthodox community is when people start to really internalize the fact that “I am gay” does not mean “I do things that are forbidden by Jewish law.” Here, let me do the block quote thing again.

‘I am gay’ does not mean ‘I do things that are forbidden by Jewish law.’

It bears repeating. Because what Rabbi Goldberg is essentially demanding is that gay people come to him — and the rest of the Orthodox world — hat in hand, humbly, with a broken heart, full of self-loathing, and say, “Please, Rabbi! Please accept me in some small way, even though I am a sinner! Even though I am a slave to my carnal desires and am utterly incapable of controlling my actions when it comes to sex. I am dust and ashes, Rabbi. A putrid drop. Please tolerate me!”

The parole system in America is strange. Apparently, if you want to get paroled, you must acknowledge your guilt. Even if you know you were wrongly convicted and have maintained your innocence all along, no parole board will grant you early release unless you admit you did what you were accused of, and express remorse. Imagine being put in that position. I can’t fathom how awful prison must be, so I can see why someone faced with more time in prison or a false confession might choose the latter, but what an awful choice to have to make.

And this is the choice that Rabbi Goldberg is presenting to us. Accept that you are, by your own testimony (“I am gay”), a person who regularly violates Jewish law, and we may be able to find a place for you. Who could actually live a healthy life with that attitude?

At the end of his article, Rabbi Goldberg points out that Orthodox Jews need to be more civil to gay people. Less derogatory. That would be welcome. He also says that gay people should be “respectful of those with traditional attitudes or who want to insulate their children from conversations on this topic.” And my first reaction was complete agreement. But then I started wondering what that means. If it means not to wear risque t-shirts and say off-color things and kiss a same-sex partner in front of people who you know aren’t going to like it, that should be a no-brainer. But I’ve run into people who have taken offense when I’ve said something like, “Oh, yes, my partner and I saw that movie. We loved it!” If “respect” means no mention whatsoever of anything that conveys the meaning that one is gay, that is anything but a reasonable request.

(And yes, I understand that it can put an Orthodox parent in a difficult position when their child asks why the child they’re playing with at shul has two mommies, but ostracizing Jews for being gay isn’t the right solution to that problem. Get creative.)

The bottom line, I think, goes back to the idea that I’ve emphasized twice already. Because while Rabbi Goldberg correctly recognizes that it is only certain actions that are forbidden by Jewish law, the rest of his article betrays his continued belief that publicly saying “I am gay” is tantamount to saying “I regularly violate Jewish law.” And until he really understands that it’s not, until he really internalizes the fact that “those who unabashedly flaunt a lifestyle inconsistent with halacha” is not a legitimate way to describe people who are openly gay, nothing is truly going to change.

About the Author
Lisa Liel lives in Karmiel with her family. She is a member of the Zehut party, works as a programmer/developer, reads a lot, watches too much TV, does research in Bronze/Iron Age archaeology of the Middle East, and argues a lot on Facebook.