Should Orthodox Homosexuals Be Encouraged to Marry?
Guest post by Rabbi Gidon Rothstein
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein is the author of Educating a People: An Haftarot Companion as a Source for a Theology of Judaism, and two works of Jewishly-themed fiction, Murderer in the Mikdash and Cassandra Misreads the Book of Samuel. He blogs at blog.webyeshiva.org and at Text and Texture.
In the recent flurry of discussions of homosexuality, sparked to some extent by the promulgation of a Statement of Principles on how to deal sensitively with those who challenged by this particular sexual inclination, some issues are almost universally agreed upon, some are a matter of debate, and some, to my mind, have become sacred cows that call for questioning.
As an example of the first, it seems to be (and should be) universally agreed that in our times, a person who confesses to such an orientation should be met with kindness and understanding, that family, friends, and spiritual advisors should look to help the person with the great struggles such a reality necessarily brings upon him or her.
How far to go with that seems to me to be an example of the second kind of issue, where there is reasonable disagreement. To hear people discuss the issue, for example, is to get the impression that this form of the yetzer hara, of the evil inclination, is qualitatively different than others, and therefore deserves to be dealt with differently. For one example, the Statement seems comfortable with homosexuals announcing themselves to their family, friends, and communities, a practice that would be discouraged when it comes to expressing other forms of inappropriate inclination.
Others, myself included, disagree. While sexual appetites are quite likely more difficult to conquer than othersâ€”and, therefore, a yetzer hara for any inappropriate sexuality would be much more difficult than one for, say, hamâ€” that does not justify a different fundamental attitude. That would mean, as I understand the Talmudâ€™s view, that all those sins ×‘×™×Ÿ ××“× ×œ×ž×§×•×, between the individual and the Creator, should remain that, private matters between the individual and the Creator.
I would certainly make exceptions for advice-seeking and empathy-soliciting, as with many other sins. When people face difficulties, they need advice and support, from family members, select friends, therapists, and/or rabbis and other spiritual advisors. But that is not the same as the decision to â€œoutâ€ oneself to the broader Jewish community, which seems, to me, to have no place in an Orthodox life. There are many people who stay single throughout their lives, and it is and should be none of the communityâ€™s business as to the reasons for that.
There, though, is perhaps the rub. Jewish homosexuals, male or female, likely find themselves bombarded with suggestions as to how they can find the right partner. Would it not be simpler to fend off these unwanted intrusions by announcing a sexual orientation that makes such ideas obviously impossible?
My first reply is that easiest is not always best. Announcing oneâ€™s homosexuality might prevent certain uncomfortable situations, but at the cost of violating a system-wide principle, that our failings between us and God should remain just that. Just as I have to hold back from telling people the ways in which I could sin, so, too, homosexuals (and would-be adulterers, etc.). To do otherwise, the Talmud implies, evinces brazenness, too great a comfort with oneâ€™s sins or inclinations toward sin. Sin, or the leaning toward sin, always shows us where we have work to do; to broadcast our comfort with who we are, in that area, is to lose sight of that reality.
But I would go a step further, to question why we are so certain homosexuals cannot marry. As so often, those who say that are responding to only one side of the issue, properly rejecting the former attitude towards homosexuality, where such people were encouraged not just to marry, but to withhold vital information from the prospective spouse, in some kind of vague hope that matters would simply work themselves out.
That is, correctly, rejected as wrong and a crime against the unsuspecting spouse. We can say that more broadly: just about any circumstance of lying or withholding vital information is going to be wrong, and a crime against some innocent, spouse or otherwise.
We need not, however, jump from there to abandoning the idea of marriage altogether. First, we have become accustomed to speaking of homosexuality as an absolute identity, but there are many shades of gray in personal sexuality. First, for some people, sexuality shifts over the course of oneâ€™s lifetime, so that someone who thought of themselves as heterosexual all their lives can â€œdiscoverâ€ his or her homosexuality at some point (or the reverse). For an Orthodox Jew, recognizing that element of sexuality could be important, reminding anyone challenged by their sense of their sexual selves that it is not necessarily cast in stone, and what is true today, or this decade, might not be true in the future.
Beyond that, though, those who feel attracted to members of their own sex still come in different stripes. There are bisexuals, for example, who can enjoy relations with members of either gender, and Orthodox Jews of this inclination should, it seems to me, absolutely be encouraged to marry. Since they are committed to resisting the homosexual aspect of their sexuality in any case, there seems no reason they cannot build a good, committed, and loving relationship with a spouse of the opposite gender.
Here, too, full disclosure is important, but just as a heterosexual entering marriage makes a commitment to quell all sexual urges outside the marriage, the bisexual could reasonably make that same commitment. A true bisexual has as good a chance of being a fine spouse as any other Jew, and his or her innate sexuality is of no concern to anyone outside that marriage.
There are, broadly speaking, two other types of homosexuals who present slightly more difficult circumstances, but whom I suspect could still find their ways to valid and in some ways fulfilling marital relationships. First, there are those homosexuals who can function heterosexually (and may even gain some pleasure from it), but not as well or as much as homosexually. Since we are, again, speaking of Orthodox Jews, for whom forbidden sexual relations are out of the question, it is not clear to me that such a person should be given a free pass on marriage.
Of course, the homosexual would need to share that aspect of him or herself with the prospective spouseâ€”to have a straightforward and honest conversation about the role a physical relationship (which need not be sexual, nor are homosexuals necessarily opposed to physical affection of a kind that can be comforting and intimate, even if not sexual) and/or sexual relations could be expected to play in this relationship.
Quite likely, such a conversation would need to be had in the presence of a third-party counselor, such as a therapist, but it still seems likely to me that some prospective spouses would accept a marital relationship even with these conditions, would take the reduced (or absent) role of sexuality in the name of an otherwise loving and fulfilling partnership. I note, in saying this, that current statistics seem to suggest that at least ten percent of American marriages significantly lack in that aspect of a relationship anyway; it is at least plausible that a homosexual could find someone for whom that part of marriage is not so vital, not a deal-breaker.
I will go a step further, and argue that the same can be true of a complete homosexual, the kind that absolutely cannot enjoy relations with a member of the opposite sex. Here, it might be more difficult to find a spouse willing to take on this condition, especially at younger ages, but as time went on, I again suspect more people would be willing to make that bargain.
I know, for example, of more than one single woman who has chosen to adopt a child as she got older and found herself unmarried. Given the burdens of child-rearing, is it unimaginable that such a woman (or a man who had reached a certain age without finding a spouse) would welcome company and assistance in building a life with the adopted child? Is it impossible that such a woman would welcome the opportunity to have a biological child with such a man, even if it had to be through in vitro fertilization?
Fooling others is never allowed; luring others into situations they never would have accepted to begin with is always a problem, and that has happened and does happen too often. But that need not take us to the extreme of rejecting the possibility of marriage and even childbearing.
Homosexuality, like any difficult wrongful inclination, challenges those who have to grapple with it, and Orthodox homosexuals deserve the same compassion for their struggles, and admiration for their triumphs, that we would give to any other sinner whom we knew to have conquered him or herself. Who is mighty? Hillel told us so long ago, s/he who conquers his/her inclinations.
But to allow Western societyâ€™s attitude towards homosexuality to warp our way of reacting to what is, in the end, simply a more difficult version of struggles we all engage in our own personal ways, is a problem, and to allow it to give a free pass on marriage (and child-bearing, a mitzvah for men) seems a step too far.