Guest post by R. Gideon Rothstein
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein is the author of We’re Missing the Point: What’s Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It, 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.
This past Shabbat, Jews all over the world read the lists of prohibited sexual acts in Parashiyot Acharei Mot and Kedoshim. That reading could and should spark many important conversations and realizations—about the Torah’s view of sexuality, about the role of the different relationships in our lives, about the meaning of the death penalty, about karet and its ramifications, and more.
One central such conversation, in our times, is about homosexuality. Increasingly, those who struggle with this incarnation of the yetzer hara, the evil inclination, and those close to them, wonder aloud why it is that Orthodoxy is so “homophobic,” so opposed to people who are doing their best to live good lives, but have a sexual inclination that differs from the ordinary.
The question bears answering. Since I’ve written about homosexuality in this space before (link), I want to note already that I see the answer I am about to give as also explaining why the topic exercises me so much, why I feel it needs to be addressed as often as possibly productive.
What I Won’t Say
One unproductive avenue, I believe, is to anchor the discussion of homosexuality in the claim that the Torah sees it as worse than other arayot, other sexual sins, because it is labeled a to’evah, usually translated as an abomination. This claim, by the way, is made both by those who dislike the possibility that the Torah attaches special opprobrium to homosexuality as well as by those who believe it is true, that homosexuality is worse.
Important Torah scholars, including mori ve-rabi R. Aharon Lichtenstein, have questioned whether we can be certain as to the Torah’s intent in using that word in this and other contexts. Focusing on the word to’evah launches a messy, convoluted, and (in my experience) futile debate about whether this sin is worse than adultery, incest, bestiality, or any other prohibited such act.
It does bear repeating, a fact often lost, that all of these wrongs are so serious that God determined that a single willful transgression of any one of them—and others besides, such as eating on Yom Kippur—deserves death, in the absence of teshuvah. We don’t need to assert that homosexuality is worse than any of those others to see it (and all those others) as religiously problematic in a life-forfeiting way.
We are so far from administering punishment in Jewish courts, and so accustomed to excusing sin in various ways, that we have lost sight of this. Many of us have become so accustomed to understanding the roots of sin, to being forgiving of others’ flaws in humble recognition of our own, both appropriate parts of a reaction to sin, that we have lost the recognition of just how terrible these sins are. I’ll return to that below, but allow me to pause to note the distinction between private and public sin.
Ashrei Nesui Pesha, Kesui Chata’ah, Blessed Are Those Whose Sins are Hidden
In 1976, a homosexual asked R. Moshe Feinstein zt”l how to repent (Iggerot Mosheh, Orach Chayyim 4:115). R. Moshe’s view of how to handle and resist such urges might not appeal to some people today, but I only mention it to note that R. Moshe answered this question as he would any other, with encouragement and advice on how to regain control of this area of life and repair a relationship with God.
Would that all of our dealings with homosexuality be like that. One important aspect of why homosexuality today in fact obligates a different response hinges on the difference between a private individual approaching a rabbi or friend with a personal difficulty, or joining a support group held without fanfare in a local Jewish institution, and what happens with homosexuality today.
Truly private sin—the kind where no one knows about it other than God, the sinner or sinners involved, and perhaps a confidant or posek, in the name of learning how to deal with a sexuality that must never be indulged—always demands simple compassion and assistance.
There likely are many such homosexuals still left in our community, and I wish them success in their struggle with an enormous challenge. Whatever I say from here on has nothing to do with any of them, or any other private sinners, of whatever sort. We are all sinners, more or less, and have no right to look down on others for their particular private failures. We can only wish them, and us, the strength and fortitude to bear their personal challenges in serving God.
Even if we accidentally discover their secret sin—unless it calls for action to protect others, such as if someone is selling nonkosher meat as if it were kosher—it remains just that, secret, between them and God. A particular Jew doesn’t marry? It’s sad, for many reasons, but unless we have something helpful to do about it (really helpful, not intrusively helpful), it’s none of our business. I doubt any of us are on such good terms with God that it’s our job to ferret out others’ private failings.
For many today, though, homosexuality is no longer private. People “come out” about their inclination to sin, and expect those around them to respond understandingly and acceptingly. I recently met a man whose personal religiosity I have no cause to question, who told me that his son had “come out” to him, nervously. He told me, further, that he and his wife had responded with some indignation that the son feared this would change their love for him.
Parenthetically, I have no problem with parental love staying steady in the face of whatever a child does. I do suspect that there are other sins, even sexual ones, where the parents would still have loved the son, but reacted differently. If he had confessed to having decided that he was, in his unalterable inclinations, an adulterer, someone who only found pleasure in seducing married women, or a slanderer, a spreader of vicious gossip, I doubt he would have received the reaction these parents assumed they should give their son the homosexual.
The larger point is that homosexuality is no longer private, and that is why, I suggest, we need to react differently to it than to other sins.
In Dein Dor
Allow me to tell a story, not directly about our topic. One of my first rebbeim, R. Ezra Bick, told me of R. Akiva Eiger, zt”l, having excommunicated a man who publicly insulted him. After the man asked forgiveness and R. Eiger removed the cherem, the man said that he had thought he had to take the position he did, as a matter of the honor of Torah.
R. Akiva Eiger replied, “In dein dor, ich bin kavod haTorah, in this generation I am the honor of Torah.” (I note that I only tell the story since R. Akiva Eiger was right, not arrogant. It’s not always clear who such people are, and some assert the title undeservedly, but in every generation, there are people whose honor is intimately connected with that of Torah itself).
Another story: R. Yitschak Ze’ev Soloveitchik, zt”l, known as R. Velvel or the Griz, was well-known for his opposition to Zionism. On the other hand (at least in the version of the story I remember), when a movie theater near him was going to open on Shabbat, he wasn’t moved to protest. Asked about the difference, he said the movies were a violation of the Torah, whereas religious Zionism, in his view, was a ziyyuf haTorah, a forgery of the Torah.
And, finally, a speculation I have heard from many and find personally convincing. In the 1940s in the United States, many, many prominent gedolim spoke and wrote forcefully about the necessity of a mechitzah in an Orthodox synagogue, the prohibition of praying in a synagogue without one.
After the fact, it is unclear why mechitzah should be so central—to some, it is not even clear that mechitzah is a Biblical requirement. I don’t mean to question the necessity of mechitzah, only to note that it is not clear from traditional sources why it became the focus of so much rabbinic attention.
The common answer, which I think both true and importantly instructive, is that in their time, (in their dor) mechitzah was the battleground of Torah. Many wanted to create a ziyyuf haTorah, a forgery of the Torah, that it was acceptable, in some way, for an Orthodox synagogue to forego a mechitzah, and the leaders of the time properly rushed to the ramparts for battle.
The Battleground of Torah
In my view, that is where the Orthodox community stands with homosexuality today. It is common, in Jewish history, to live in a society that has accepted a morality counter to that of the Torah. It forces us to remind ourselves—and to work to transmit to our children—our contrary view, our being a nation that dwells alone, that follows a different moral standard, that answers to a higher authority.
This repeated element of Jewish life becomes that much more difficult when other Jews, who claim to adhere to the same Torah as we do, begin to import and accept that alien part of outside society’s morality. I stress that I am not opposing adopting outside ideas; I am opposing adopting those that are in flagrant contradiction to the Torah’s dictates and values. Then, the battle is about maintaining a proper communal understanding of what God wants from us.
Imagine, for example, that the 1970s fad of open marriages and “swinging” had caught on, so that a significant minority of Americans were engaging in wife-swapping, and society at large had come to believe there was nothing wrong with it, for those who chose to engage in it. That would be a new temptation for Jews, having to remind ourselves of the sanctity of marriage in a society that had abandoned it. It would mean that some Jews would likely give in to the temptation of trying it, of tasting this new pleasure that the intelligent, sophisticated people around them all thought to be fine. Observant Jews would have to work to hold the line against this encroachment on our morality.
It would become that much harder if couples who were members of Orthodox communities, who claimed to be Orthodox Jews, not only fell prey to engaging in such activities, but began to insist that the Orthodox community accept them, and treat them with respect and understanding.
Lost Battles and Battles Still Underway
I fear some readers will think to themselves, well, we do accept such sinners. We have, in many Orthodox Jewish communities, become accustomed to welcoming, without comment or judgment, those who violate the Torah very publicly, at all levels—from Shabbat desecration (which is, arguably, worse than homosexuality, since the Talmud sees one who violates Shabbat publicly as being someone who has rejected the whole Torah), to gossip and slander, to eating out at non-kosher restaurants, and all the way down the line.
That leads some to say, you can tolerate all those forms of sin, why not this one?
The answer lies in the words in dein dor, in this generation, and in the concept of ziyyuf haTorah, forgery of Torah. The Jewish community has, over the last two centuries, been forced to confront a world in which most of our fellow Jews are not attempting to observe the Torah. Leaders of past generations have had to find ways to walk a line that allows us to express our love of our fellow Jew even as we are saddened by their lack of observance.
That is true, it seems to me, only for those sins where the recognition that a sin is wrong has already been completely lost. Where there is still room to argue that point, it becomes incumbent upon us all to do so.
If I lived in a community where everyone—as far as any of us could tell—observed Shabbat, and a well-educated person in that community (or a newcomer) began to publicly violate it, that would be a battle to fight. We would start by remonstrating with that person softly and privately, as Rambam tells us, but we would have to continue combating that behavior until we won. Or until we lost so fully that further battle would be futile.
If we were in a community where no one lied—as the Talmud tells us of the city of Lod—and someone began to lie, that would be a battle to fight (as it was in Lod, where they asked the first such person to leave their community). When mechitzah, or Biblical criticism, or academic Talmud, or psychological determinism was at the forefront of the fight over what was authentic or not within a Torah community, those each became battles to fight.
Once the battle is lost, once large percentages of the Jewish community have lost sight of what the Torah asks of us, those who still understand the ideals of the Torah (I am making no claim about success at keeping that Torah; the question at hand is remembering the ideal, not who is better or worse at fulfilling it) are forced to fall back, reminding themselves of the truth even as they are polite and welcoming to others who are not only ignorant of the truth but often willfully reject it.
There may come a time when that is true of homosexuality, when so much of the Orthodox community has lost sight of a simple fact of the Torah’s view of a proper life, that that, too, will become a matter for those who still strive to keep the whole Torah to know privately but not comment on publicly. That day has not yet come, and those interested in upholding and promoting a life lived in proper service of God should, I believe, be manning the ramparts to make sure that that view, that realization, is not lost.
Towards Returning Homosexuality to an Ordinary Arayot
Many, many people are bedeviled by wrongful urges, especially sexual. I don’t write out of the pretense that I could do better if faced by such urges, or that I do better in my own private life with whatever wrongful desires I may or may not have.
But a proper sexuality is one of the linchpins of the life the Torah tells us to set up. That view itself, that underlying understanding, is under attack in our day, and in the battle being fought, there are casualties along the way. When we meet such a casualty, a private individual who has bought into the external world’s views and has been led to sin, we need to respond with all the compassion we can muster, to help him heal this wound in his spiritual persona.
Yet even as we care for the casualties, we must continue to wage the war, in the hope that here, at least, we can preserve the proper understanding of what it is God wants from us, as expressed openly and unequivocally in the Torah.