See my blog post of yesterday for a new definition of sexual orientation.
To understanding why Judaism would need a clear definition of gayness, one requires a different frame of mind than the Western permissive one. Let me try to explain that part of Orthodox Judaism.
NB: Although many straight and some gay people equate sex with intercourse only, sex is clearly much more. This is important because present Jewish Law forbids any and all gay sex, not just penetration (see: Jewish Law Forbids all of Homosexuality).
1. The rules of Orthodox Judaism seem restrictive – don’t do this and do do that. However, in reality they rather permit. What right does anyone have to take up space and attention, to require money, to eat and drink, to kill for food and in war, etc. The non-religious should be so ethical that they feel paralyzed by all the ethical dilemmas. In the same vein: What right does one have to bother anyone else with one’s sexual needs? Is this bothering permitted once the other will bother you with theirs? Judaism says yes under certain conditions.
2. These conditions are general for the general person. They are based on many principles: what is good for most people, what will challenge people to become more moral (instead of being stable in their present state), what is good for the community and society.
3. Judaism tries to train us to be giving. If everyone gives, everyone receives. That is radically different from a “rights” worldview that tries to get everyone to receive. The latter makes people focused on entitlement and competing for receiving or even grabbing. So, rather than that everyone has a right to autonomy, Judaism teaches that no one should take away someone else’s autonomy.
4. Judaism advocates a lifestyle more than a mindset. In the end, what one feels and thinks is hardly prescribed. Judaism is not a “belief” – it is a guidebook for (in)actions. Its Codes of Law only fit most people and most situations. Specialists can help in more specific situations. Life and humans are too complicated to be guided comprehensively by some limited text.
5. Judaism has different obligations for men and women, and Jews and Gentiles. This may per definition seem bigotry from an outsider’s viewpoint. However, one should remember that the world’s acknowledgement of equal rights for all stems from Judaism. These differences are to assign different obligations and responsibilities, not different rights, whereby the most capable get obligated the most!
6. The Codes of Law are also meant to protect what is unique in Judaism, against assimilation and watering down its specialness. Therefore it will often take a stand against the craze of the day and the beliefs and practices of other traditions or populations. Therefore, only most slowly will any formal change and improvement of it be applied. There is a palpable fear of throwing out the child with the bathwater. No one likes all of Judaism’s Laws. We often stay within its framework because we appreciate enough of them – sometimes even the aspects we hate (monthly total physical separation for the menstrual period).
7. The Codes of Law are based on absolute principles: that life needs to benefit each of us, that our principles should let us live rather than die, that we are meant to enjoy life (within limits), that we all should be kind, giving, forgiving, responsible, grateful, trying to improve our character, raising the next generation of loyal Jews, be helpful to all other people on the planet, etc.
8. However, the Codes of Law are unhelpful where they are or became wrong. Happens. They have never been as wrong as about male homosexuality for homosexuals. Changes will go very unhurried. Also the position of women in Judaism is shifting at a snail’s pace.
9. The rabbis cannot replace the Codes by making women and men, straight and gays, Jews and Gentiles equal. That would throw out too much of our valuable tradition. However, the Codes were always meant to protect and guide the individual and community – never to harm or oppress. Therefore the Codes will change, but it will take time. Meanwhile, it is important to support religious Jews to go against the letter of the Codes (gasp) where they would make their lives impossible!
10. Sex is good for becoming one flesh, healthy, holy (special, not to squander), an obligation to husbands and a right of wives. It must be done in private, with consent, while not drunk, to the liking of the woman, to the free choosing between the partners.
11. People can do with their lives whatever they want but the rules in Judaism will always challenge us to strive for what seems to be best (but maybe difficult) for most people. In exceptional cases we’d ask others for guidance in order not to end up having just self-serving guidelines.
Having read that, maybe you can understand the value of forbidding anal sex for heterosexual men (because it often addicts and makes such men often leave their wives for a life dictated by pleasure instead of by responsibility (wife, kids) which will be the most pleasurable in the long run). Maybe you can then see why Judaism needs to distinguish gay and straight: in order to permit gay men what would stay forbidden to straight men. This distinction is then to permit, not to limit. Judaism can also not support experimenting with sex. It reserves it for after the wedding. It holds that experimenting leads people to get hurt. This restriction is not because sex is bad or dirty – it is too holy to squander and people to valuable and vulnerable to be used as guinea pigs.
And therefore I want to redefine gay, to permit new rules that enable the rabbis to support a Jewish gay monogamous lifestyle. Gay then cannot mean: what one does or feels like. It must be something biological. As it seems to be. Judaism will never permit sex outside of marriage or any other framework without obligations.