LGBT and Halakha: The Role of Intellectual Humility

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By R. Yaakov Hoffman

While the condemnations of Prof. Aaron Koller’s On Halakha and LGBT have correctly critiqued his theological conclusions, they have not gone far enough in demonstrating the flaws in his line of thinking.1 To avoid any misimpression, I will state from the outset that I have only the utmost compassion for those with same-sex attraction and support their inclusion in the Orthodox community in a halakhically valid manner. We absolutely cannot judge such individuals and must relate to them on a personal, human level. My words serve purely to show the fault with Prof. Koller’s Weltanschauung.

Homosexuality’s status as a hotly contested topic serves to undermine dispassionate analysis of Prof. Koller’s arguments. In order to better debunk his perspective, I would like to apply it to a different, but surprisingly analogous, Torah precept, one that even non-Orthodox Jews still consider important: brit milah.

Ancient Greece severely persecuted the Jewish people’s insistence on circumcision, which they viewed as mutilation. Nevertheless, we continued our steadfast and ingrained devotion to this mitzvah through the most trying of times.2 Around the turn of the 20th century, we began to feel vindicated as the medical establishment recognized the health benefits of circumcision and the practice became prevalent in the non-Jewish populations of several countries, including the United States.

Now, however, the tide is beginning to turn again. A small but growing movement, mostly in Europe but gaining traction here as well, seeks to ban circumcision. The proponents of this approach maintain that the foreskin actually serves important anatomical functions and removal thereof has few, if any, medical advantages.

Excising part of a newborn’s body without his consent—a procedure whose effects last a lifetime—seems to violate “personal autonomy,” which Prof. Koller counts among “the most deeply held values of the modern world.” Would it be acceptable for a father to withhold a bris from his son because he would “rather suffer for being a good person than sacrifice someone else’s life on the altar of [his] religiosity”?3

Since most Jews hold the practice of brit milah so dear, they will likely viscerally reject such a suggestion. But it is worth bearing in mind that the same authority that mandated brit milah forbade homosexual acts. Furthermore, there are parallels in the history of the two topics: Ancient Greece embraced and promoted homosexual relationships—which Jews falling under its dominion could never abide. As time went on, Western society based its approach to homosexuality on the Biblical one, and we Jews found ourselves in the mainstream regarding this issue.

In the 21st century, we are again on the defensive as societal attitudes toward homosexuality grow more and more liberal. The pace at which people’s attitudes have changed is mind-boggling—consider the oft-cited example of how the Supreme Court enshrined same-sex marriage as a constitutional right in 2015 despite it barely being on the radar at the turn of the century.

The morality that Prof. Koller endorses is clearly beholden to the whims of the age. Today, he insists on full acceptance in the Orthodox community not only of homosexual activity but even of gay marriage, to the extent of “wish[ing] a mazel tov in the weekly community announcements” and “welcom[ing] with their partner into myriad communal frameworks.”4 Consider the logic of this: A decade ago, recognition of gay marriage would not have trumped the Torah, but now it does?

To the extent that progressivism is so much in flux, how can Prof. Koller be so confident that 2019’s ultraliberal approach to homosexuality is synonymous with “humanity,” going so far as to say that “[i]n a clash between humanity and halakha, opt for humanity”? Especially when faced with a conflicting religious tradition, one clearly needs to step back, look at the broader picture, and reserve judgment.

A similar process is at play in Prof. Koller’s field of Jewish Studies. Academic theories come and go, and scientific knowledge is constantly being updated. When a scholar publishes a book or article that seems to contradict Judaism, should one react by treating oneself to a pork chop? Obviously, serious intellectual humility is required. We must recognize that despite the amazing accomplishments of human civilization, there is much, much more we have to learn. And we must have faith that eventually, more will be discovered that supports our beliefs—as actually happens all the time.

The same goes for general scientific inquiry, including analysis of human behavior. Those who agree with Prof. Koller are utterly convinced that accepting homosexual relationships as entirely equivalent to heterosexual ones is the only way forward. In truth, however, we still have much to learn about sexuality—including the genetic, psychological, and sociological underpinnings thereof.

Has it really been incontrovertibly demonstrated that sexual orientation is virtually always inborn and completely inflexible?5 Can we be totally confident that there is no detrimental impact on society of normalization of same-sex relationships? Is it absolutely certain that, all things being equal, it is just as advantageous for a child to be raised by two persons of the same gender as by opposite-sex parents? Is there no possibility whatsoever of future generations undermining some of contemporary society’s assumptions?

Regarding this, I would like to re-appropriate Prof. Koller’s encouragement to “have enough faith in halakha that the problem will be solved.” Prof. Koller intends this phrase as a wish that the halakhic impediment to his preferred course of action be removed. Out of context, we can take it as a charge to have faith that the truth of halakha remains, whereas outside challenges come and go. Indeed, human understanding, with its necessarily limited nature, cannot compare to divine revelation.

Prof. Koller gives no explicit indication that he denies the Torah’s divine origin. In fact, he states matter-of-factly that halakha “traces [its] authority to the ancient rabbis and, in turn, to the Sinai revelation itself.” But it is quite telling that immediately thereafter he states: “On the side of LGBT rights is something no less profound: the most deeply held values of the modern world” (emphasis added). That any Jew could consider the “most deeply held values of the modern world,” which change almost daily, to be on par with God’s Torah, to which Jews have been unwaveringly committed for millennia through unimaginable hardship, is a profound religious failing.

  1. See the essays of <a href="">Rabbi Gil Student</a>, <a href="">Rabbi Harry Maryles</a>, and <a href="">Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer</a>. 

  2. Cf. Shabbat 130a. 

  3. The example of a <em>bris </em>also shows the fallacy of Prof. Koller’s misrepresentation of “[the Torah’s] ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace” (Proverbs 3:17) and “love thy neighbor as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18) as being applied by Chazal to mean that Torah rules must be pleasant to observe. Many things that the Torah demands can actually be quite painful, both physically and emotionally, including circumcision and execution—the latter being an example that Prof. Koller himself cites. Insofar as they are applied to mitzvot, these verses teach us only that, all things being equal, a mitzvah should be done as pleasantly as possible. See <a href="">here</a>. 

  4. As is well known, Jewish tradition considers official sanction of same-sex relationships to be worse than privately engaging in homosexual relations (<em>Chullin </em>92b). 

  5. A recent study found that one could not predict sexual orientation by examining a person’s genome. While the exact implications of this are still being explored, it constitutes an important example of accepted postulates being subject to reconsideration. 

About Yaakov Hoffman

Yaakov Hoffman is the rabbi of Washington Heights Congregation and a member of the Kollel L’Horaah of RIETS. He has had a lifelong interest in the history of halacha and is a practicing sofer. He can be reached at [email protected]

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