Torah and Tolerance

Once again, I am confronted with a dilemma. A dilemma that is currently on the front burner of debate in America. Homosexuality is an issue upon which I have expressed my views many times. And yet, I am conflicted. That’s because there is a fine line between what is and what isn’t an appropriate approach to it.

There are conflicting values. On the one hand there is Kavod HaBriyos – the requirement to treat all of mankind with dignity and respect — regardless of their sexual orientation. That is a given. On the other hand there is the Halachic prohibition of homosexual sex. How do we honor both laws? I have expressed the view that we simply have no right to judge people by their sexual orientation or by what they might be doing in the privacy of their own homes. We must instead always judge them by their character.

At the same time we must be clear about the prohibition of living a lifestyle that would include forbidden sexual acts of any kind, whether they are committed by straights or gays. In no way should there be a blessing for unions that are based on forbidden acts. Or lifestyles that are conducive to them. Which is why I am opposed to gay marriage. And yet state after state has legalized and given their blessing to the marriage of same sex couples. The Supreme Court is now considering whether there is a constitutional right to same sex marriage thus making it the law of the land.

This has come about because of a well organized campaign by gay activists to portray gay couples as no different than straight couples.  Hollywood has done more than their share of promoting this image as has the news media. Yesterday for example, the PBS Newshour had a segment pitting the views of a pro gay marriage gay couple against the views of their city’s mayor who opposes it.

While the arguments for and against may have been fair, the visuals told a different story. One could see that the gay couple was as normal and mainstream as could be. They were typically American with good values, raising children they adopted the same way. Seeing that and listening to their message one could only have sympathy for their plight. They felt they were missing one important cog to their wheel of happiness. Marriage. If their union was recognized by the State through marriage, they would achieve complete societal acceptance equal to heterosexual couples. Thus normalizing a gay lifestyle. After seeing how normal this family was, how could anybody object to that?

And yet there is something to object to. As bible believing Jews, we cannot normalize a lifestyle where sexual gratification is patently forbidden to one degree or another. Even in the unlikely event that they are able to refrain from forbidden activity, we cannot celebrate a union where this is a likely outcome.

The current spirit of the times suggest otherwise. Those with an agenda to completely normalize a gay lifestyle must perforce reject what the Torah says about it. How can they not? That is the only way one can say that homosexuality is the same as heterosexuality. That the lifestyles are equal. They will add that what people do in the bedroom is no one’s business anyway.  That may be true, but that does not allow us to say that they are both the same when the Torah clearly says they are not.  Those who think that homosexual sex is just fine reject what the Torahs says about it. It is as simple as that.

However the spirit of the times on this matter is not entirely wrong. It is true that gay people experience ignorance and prejudice. That ought to change.

I believe that is what a landmark conference on April 19th at Columbia University on homosexuality and Orthodoxy was all about. They are trying to hash out these issues and I applaud them for it. On the panel was Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, recent past president of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA). It was also attended by former OU executive director Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb.

Certain myths were disposed of very quickly at the conference. Like the one that reparative or conversion therapy works. From a JTA article:

At the conference, that possibility was rejected as dangerous by two mental health professionals: Jack Drescher, who has helped develop the American Psychiatric Association’s positions on sex and gender diagnoses, and Warren Throckmorton, a prominent former supporter of conversion therapy who now condemns it.

I’m glad that these issues are finally being addressed by mainstream Orthodoxy. But I am disappointed that there is a break by the Charedi world about it.

A few years ago, some thoughtful Modern Orthodox rabbis came out with a declaration that was both Halachic and exuded compassion for gay members of the Jewish community – urging fair and equal treatment for those that are open about it. It was signed by 100 Orthodox rabbis.

For some reason the Charedi world felt impelled to come out immediately with their own ‘Torah Declaration’ suggesting that the first one was not Torah based. It was signed by over 200 rabbis – some of whom are considered leaders in the Modern Orthodox world.

After reading them both, the only real difference I could see was in how reparative therapy is to be treated. This second set of rabbis categorically rejected the notion that gay people cannot be ‘converted’ into being straight. This, despite all the research to the contrary. Although there have been claims of success by such organizations, I believe that it was only those that were confused about their sexuality. Not with those that were sure about it. The rationale of the second declaration is as follows:

From a Torah perspective, the question whether homosexual inclinations and behaviors are changeable is extremely relevant. The concept that G-d created a human being who is unable to find happiness in a loving relationship unless he violates a biblical prohibition is neither plausible nor acceptable. G-d is loving and merciful. Struggles, and yes, difficult struggles, along with healing and personal growth are part and parcel of this world. Impossible, life long, Torah prohibited situations with no achievable solutions are not.

I understand what they are saying. But I don’t see how that is reconciled with experts in the field who have concluded that it is ineffective and even dangerous. To suggest that gay people can change and must subject themselves to the humiliation of conversion therapy is to put them at risk for depression and even suicide. That has been shown to be the case in many situations. Shouldn’t Pikuach Nefesh be the primary concern? In the face of that, shouldn’t rationales like that be put aside? Maybe we simply cannot explain why the Torah gave us this law?

About the Author
My worldview is based on the philosophy of my teacher, Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik , and the writings of Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitcihk , Norman Lamm, and Dr. Eliezer Berkovits from whom I developed an appreciation for philosophy. I attended Telshe Yeshiva and the Hebrew Theological College where I was ordained. I also attended Roosevelt University where I received my degree in Psychology.
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