Friday, July 18, 2008

Homosexual Orthodox Rabbis: a Medieval Perspective on a Modern Problem

Recently I had a conversation with an old friend of mine, Yekutiel Ish-Tob, whom I had not spoken to in a while. Ish-Tob is a poster child for Modern Orthodox Judaism; he is a deeply religious person, who is studying full time to become a rabbi, but who is also worldly and open-minded. I always thought of Ish-Tob as a fairly liberal person, so maybe this should not have come as a surprise, but I was still caught off guard when he told me that he supported the ordination of openly homosexual rabbis, even, in theory, those who were not celibate. I like to think of myself as a liberal as well when it comes to gay rights. I oppose anti-sodomy laws and all forms of legalized discrimination against homosexuals. I even support government sanctioned gay marriage, albeit not as a constitutional right. Nevertheless, I still view homosexual sex as a serious sin. Therefore I do not support the toleration of homosexual activity within the confines of the Orthodox community and would not condone allowing those who openly engage in such behavior to assume positions of leadership. I believe that those openly engaged in homosexual activity should be treated like those who openly engage in other sins, such as eating non-kosher food and violating the Sabbath. I admit, though, that there is an important difference when dealing with homosexuality, and in this sense Ish-Tob has a valid point, that, in this day and age, sexuality, unlike eating pork or driving on Saturday, is viewed as a basic right; therefore to deny people any form of sexual expression is to take away an essential part of their humanity.

I find myself in a funny situation, mainly because I spend so much time immersed in the world of medieval Christianity. My encounter with medieval Christianity makes me both less sympathetic and more sympathetic to Ish-Tob’s perspective. This medieval Christian world, that I live in, is full celibate priests and monks. (Yes I know that in practice many of them were not celibate.) This may sound funny coming from an Orthodox Jew, but I must admit that there is something attractive about monasticism and that the stereotypical Jewish polemical attacks are ineffective. Since I am willing to grant that celibacy is a legitimate lifestyle option, and possibly even one to be praised, I have a hard time understanding why one cannot simply tell people with homosexual orientations to either be celibate or leave the community. On the other hand I find myself very open to medieval Christian notions of sin. Particularly the notion that we are all hapless sinners and that there are certain sins that someone might be incapable of avoiding simply through an act of will. Since it is not the person’s fault, we can do nothing but offer God’s absolution. The logical conclusion from this is that, if a person acknowledges that, as a practicing homosexual, he is a sinner, we should still embrace him as part of our faith community and not expel him. We should even allow such a person to take on leadership roles, such as the rabbinate. Since we are a community of sinners we should not think it beneath ourselves to be lead by a sinner.

Whether or not the Orthodox community ordains homosexuals as rabbis, one must admit that we ignore homosexuals at our own peril. Approximately five to ten percent of any given population, including ours, is going to be oriented toward homosexuality. We cannot afford to simply write off such a percentage of our population. In this I fully agree with Ish-Tob.


Miss Shona said...

I recently found out (via Facebook...of all means) that one of my study partners at Aish HaTorah is a lesbian. She is also FFB...and (from my perspective) seems to have no huge issues reconciling the fact ( she is a FFB who opts to daven with the Aish HaTorah center minyan...I do not see that as an issue...although I am sure some could or do). I honestly wish I could say I can understand where she is coming from...but I do not. And while she is happy with her status...I am actually pretty saddened by it.

The Torah offers us a guidebook to a more spiritually fulfilling life. Do we always understand the mitzvot? No way. I mean how exactly will eating chicken alfredo affect my quality of life (outside of the thousands of calories per serving)? Nonetheless, it all comes together to not only preserve Am Yisrael, but to gently direct the operation of all creation of HKBH. A frum Jew should understand that. No matter how tempting it may be to sleep with your sister's husband or anything else of the sort.

(In all fairness, I realize that being a lesbian is somehow "not as bad" as being a gay man. But I do not know the official posek on this...other than lesbianism is also highly frowned upon.)

I am a human being, so my understanding of the world is surely limited...but I do not believe that the vast majority (like 90%) of homosexuals are "born that way". I have no "scientific" information on which to base my theory...but from what I have seen...knowing about 15+ gay individuals personally...they almost all have had some exposure or experience with abuse or dysfunction in their home life. Believe me, I do not believe that gay people need to be lectured to or anything like that; but I feel that it is similar to other indulgences such as overeating, or alcoholism or even bigotry. Yes, certain personality traits can lead you to be more prone to such behavior...but you can overcome it.

It is hard to not marginalize people and also not condone whatever unacceptable activities they involve themselves in. I am just rambling really...I have no answers. Heterosexual individuals have their battles with sexual deviance as well; including very religious heterosexuals. There are most certainly "frum" guys who are "players" at heart...but (hopefully) they don't give into it...because they hold a level of accountability to the community...if not their least.

Totally off topic, I would like to thank you for blogging about Gemilas Chesed (without a doubt...I am spelling that wrong...but I'm afraid to open up any more windows on my screen right now in order to verify the spelling). It's a great shul and it's much closer than Squirrel Hill. Bli neder, I will try to post something about it (maybe in my more 'Jewishly-inclined blog') once I can get there outside of Shabbas and take pictures of the place. be continued....

Izgad said...

I don't think we are arguing about anything here. To me the issue of whether homosexuals are born with the desire is irrelevant and a distraction. It allows for the argument that if homosexuals are born as they are then their actions are okay. It may very well be that some people are born with a desire to eat pork that does not mean they are allowed to eat pork.

I am reminded of Nachmonides who wrote a commentary on Isaiah 53, which interpreted the passage as referring to the Messiah even though he believed that it referred to Israel. He did this because he did not want to concede that line of interpretation to Christians; to have people assume that if Isaiah 53 is about the Messiah then it must be Jesus.

So how should the Orthodox community deal with sinners, homosexual or any of the other 364 negative commandments?