Friday, April 15, 2011

Torah Based Responses to Homosexuality

As a person with a commitment to fight prejudice and committed to living my life based on an orthodox interpretation of the Torah this is a topic I approach with some discomfort.

I think the basic elements are, 1) the reality of the lives homosexuals and the communities and societies in which they live 2) a vision of life as being lived in a committed relationship of a man and a woman 3) a Torah prohibition of Homosexual acts. "Thou shalt not lie with a man, as with a woman; it is an abomination"i. 4) An obligation to treat others with empathy and loves just as we would want to be treated combined with a traditional separation between sins and sinners. 5) Advice that you should not judge your fellow until you have stood in his placeiii. 6) Torah’s guidance against discrimination, especially when there is a power imbalanceiv and broader messages about doing the right thing by people who are vulnerable.

Reality Check
To respond appropriately to any situation requires an understanding of that situation. One highly respected scholar from the last generation asserts that “the whole world despise homosexuals... and also in the eyes of the second wicked person with whom he does the sin (the Homosexual act) he is cheapnened and despised”v. I find it hard to believe that this conclusion was based on intensive interviews with a representative sample of homosexuals.

A more recent work has the benefit not only of scholarship but also of having talked with many Homosexualsvi. One doctor found that he was far more effective after learning more about what the reality of homosexuals and their families from the blog Kirtzono on which families of Jewish homosexuals share their stories and support each othervii. I found the accounts on that particular site very moving and I would do well to learn more from first person accounts of what life is like for a homosexual in our time and particularly trying to live by Torah's guidance. This is particularly important for congregational rabbis who might find themselves offering advice about "treatment" that has been found to be harmful or unlikely to be effective.

Vision of Life
At a Jewish wedding a blessing is recited that praises God as the one “who formed the man”. A rabbi I heard last night asked about the timing of this blessing, 'surely the time to say this would be at birth. He explained that, The reason we only say it then, is because until a person is married he is not a (full) person, he is only trully human when he is part of a coupleviii. As our sages taught “every person (Adam) who has no wife is not a personix”. While this could be used by some to argue that Homosexuals should simply ‘be fixed’ and get married, recent Halachic advice is much more realistic than that and in the case of someone with an exclusive homosexual disposition would strong advise against marriagex. That being the case, the Homosexual who wishes to live a Torah guided life based around a committed relationship is in a terrible perdicament because the only relationship s/he can in good conscience committ to is forbidden to him/her. 
The Torah’s prohibition and the 'Abomination'description
In terms of law this case is straight forward, more severe in the case of males than females and some other practical matters well covered by others.

Shmueli Boteach, a popular author and a Chasidic trained orthodox Rabbi (author of Kosher Sex) has questioned the emphasis people put on the word Abomination in this case. He makes the point that the same word is applied to a range of religious prohibitions. One reason put forward for this is that Homosexuality is not the "Natural" way and that people naturally object to itxi. I am not clear why nature matters so much, when I thought Torah is there to help us overcome nature. Regardless, Torah is unchangeable and must not be censored or rewritten, still I wonder about how to weigh up the suffering caused to Gay people by emphasizing thisxii against potential benefits, if any.

Treating others as we want to be treated
Over 100 orthodox Rabbis, Educators and health professionals have formulated a statement that seeks to respond to Homosexuality in a way that is appropriate and consistent with Halachaxiii. The first is worth quoting in full. “All human beings are created in the image of God and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect (Kavod Haberiyot). Every Jew is obligated to fulfill the entire range of mitzvot between person and person in relation to persons who are homosexual or have feelings of same sex attraction. Embarrassing, harassing or demeaning someone with a homosexual orientation or same-sex attraction is a violation of Torah prohibitions that embody the deepest values of Judaism.”

The Talmudic notion of hating people for their sins is interpreted as having very very limited applicationxiv. As Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes in the introduction to Rapoport's (2004) Judaism and Homosexuality, "Compassion, sympathy, empathy, understanding—these are essential elements of Judaism. They are what homosexual Jews who care about Judaism need from us today.”

Tanya has a very insightful approach to humility and judgement. Consider the situation of the person you are temped to judge and then translate that to your own context and you will find yourself humbled. Rapoport, a Chabadnic Rabbi who is also part of the Chief Rabbi's cabinet, applies this to our topic.
"The heterosexual Jew ought to ask himself questions such as: “If I were to find myself in a situation whereby I would constantly be yearning to be in a loving relationship—of a type that includes physical intimacy—and the only sexual relationships I could reasonably have would be with a member of the same gender, would I live up to the Torah’s demands?”, or “If I knew that there is never likely to be any way of experiencing sexual fulfillment in a halakhically permissible manner, and at the same time, I would be almost constantly exposed to sexual temptation, would I have the fortitude to remain alone and celibate?” I venture to say that many a heterosexual person who confronts himself honestly with such questions would indeed be humbled.xv"

Prejudice and Conclusion
Considering what we know about the nature of prejudice and the natural inclination to "dislike the unlike", Torah guidance about empathy and against prejudice, we still won't have Torah supporting gay marriage, but it will strongly support positive interaction and sensitivity.

i Leviticus 18:22
ii Leviticus 19:18
iii Pirkey Avot 2:5
iv Exodus 20:22, do not mistreat the sojourner/convert as explained by Ibn Ezra “...because you have more power than him.”
v Feinstien, R. Moshe, Igrot Moshe, Orach Chayim 4, p. 206, in a letter dated 1 Adar II, 5736, 1976
vi Cohen U, C, “Review Essay: Relating to Orthodox Homosexuals: The Case for Compassion”
viii Schmerling, Rabbi M, spoken at a Chasidic Farbrengen tonight 14/4/11 at Jewish Community Centre/Chabad House of the North Shore
ix Talmud Yevamot 63a
x Rapoport, Rabbi C, (2004) Judaism and Homosexuality, Vallentine Mitchell, London & Portland, pages, 97. 97 & 100 cited in the review by Cohen U, C,
xiIbn Ezra on Leviticus 18:22, Feinstien and others
xiiA Common feature of prejudice is to separate people into the normal and to cast others as being different to the norm.
xivTanya Chapter 32, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi
xvRapoport, Rabbi C, (2004) Judaism and Homosexuality, p. 71


  1. What a brave and wonderful man you are, Rabbi. I come from a Catholic upbringing and even in my beautiful family home the worst thing I could call one of my brothers was "a homo" or words to that effect. There was a subtle 'understanding' that not only was homosexuality wrong, it was disgusting. I am straight, but I now make a point of telling ANYONE, that I support all my homosexual brothers and sisters and that if anyone has a problem with that, THEY are the problem that needs addressing (not always an easy thing to do!). It must make it personally difficult when some religious instruction objects to ways of life that you know to be just one more part of our common humanity, but it's decent men like you who inspire others with your humble, brave decency.

  2. The following is a list of things the Bible considers an abomination. It is worth considering why it is homosexuality that gets all the attention!

    Unclean things (Lev. 7:21)
    Customs of pagans (Lev. 18:30)
    Idols (2 Chr. 15:8; 1 Pet. 4:3)
    Sins of men (Ps. 14:1; 53:1)
    Cheating (Mic. 6:10)
    Lost souls (Rev. 21:8)
    A froward man (perverse; one who turns aside (Pro. 3:32; 11:20)
    A proud look (Pro. 6:16-17)
    A lying tongue (Pro. 6:17; 12:22)
    Hands that shed innocent blood ((Pro. 6:17)
    A wicked scheming heart (Pro. 6:18)
    Feet that are quick to sin (Pro. 6:18)
    A false witness that speaks lies (Pro. 6:19)
    A sower of discord (Pro. 6:19)
    Wickedness (Pro. 8:7)
    A false balance or scale (Pro. 11:1)
    Sacrifices of the wicked (Pro. 15:8; 21:27)
    The way of the wicked (Pro. 15:9)
    The thoughts of the wicked (Pro. 15:26)
    The proud of heart (Pro. 16:5)
    Justifying the wicked (Pro. 17:15)
    Condemning the just (Pro. 17:15)
    Divers, dishonest weights (Pro. 20:10, 23)
    Divers, dishonest measures (Pro. 20:10)
    Refusing to hear the law (Pro. 28:9)
    Prayers of the rebel (Pro. 28:9)
    Eating flesh of peace offerings on the 3rd day (Lev. 7:18)
    Some same sex acts (Lev. 18:22; 20:13; Dt. 23:18) See
    Taking ornaments from idols when being destroyed (Dt. 7:25-26)
    Any Idolatrous practices (Dt. 12:31; 13:14; 17:4; 18:9; 20:18; 29:17)
    Offering an imperfect animal to God as a sacrifice (Dt. 17:1)
    Any traffic with demons (Dt. 18:7-12)
    Wearing clothes of the opposite sex (Dt. 22:5) See
    Bringing the hire of a harlot or sodomite into God's house (Dt. 23:18)
    Re-marriage of former companions (Dt. 24:1-4)
    Cheating others (Dt. 25:13-16)
    Making images/idols (Dt. 27:15)
    Idols of Ammon (1 Ki. 11:5)
    Idols of Moab (1 Ki. 11:7; 2 Ki. 11:13)
    Idols of Zidon (2 Ki. 23:13)
    Incense offered by hypocrites (Isa. 1:13)
    Eating unclean things (Isa. 66:17)
    Offering human sacrifices (Jer. 32:35)
    Robbery (Ezek. 18: 6-13)
    Murder (Ezek. 18: 6-13)
    Adultery (Ezek. 18: 6-13)
    Oppression of others, particularly the poor or vulnerable (Ezek. 18: 6-13)
    Violence (Ezek. 18: 6-13)
    Breaking vows (Ezek. 18: 6-13)
    Lending with interest to a brother (Ezek. 18: 6-13)
    Lying with a menstruous woman (Ezek. 18: 6-13)
    Hardness of heart (Ezek. 18: 6-13)
    Injustice (Ezek. 18: 6-13)
    Worship of anti-Christ (Dan. 11:31; 12:11; Mt. 24:15; 2 Th. 2:4; Rev. 13)
    Incest (Lev. 19: 6-30)
    Things highly esteemed by man (Lk. 16:15)
    Many other sins of the nations (Lev. 18: 26-29; Dt. 18: 9-12; 20:18; 29:17; 1 Ki. 14:24; 21:2, 11; 23:24; 2 Chr. 28:3; 33:2; 34:33; 36:14; Ezek. 7: 3-20; 8: 6-17; 16: 2-58; 20: 4-30; Rev. 17: 4-5)

  3. B"H

    Hi Donna,

    You ask, why is it that homosexuality gets all the attention when the Torah refers to so many sins as an 'abomination'?

    The Torah gives this sin as THE main reason why the world was destroyed in the times of Noach. Man's corruption in this area was so prevalent, it even affected the animals to go sexually astray. None of the sins listed above ever aroused the wrath of the G-d to destroy virtually the entire world like homosexuality did.

    Try looking at it from the perspective that homosexuality affects the essential nucleus of all human society, the family. Maybe that's why it arouses the revulsion of G-d as well as that of most people who have the preservation of society in mind.

    In a public address the Rebbe clearly stated that homosexuality is not only a sin, it is a self-destructive mental and emotional illness. That it is the result of pushing the natural proclivities of the animal soul beyond it's natural limits. That it needs compassionate treatment not privilages. Never did the Rebbe condone this lifestyle or ascribe special 'rights' and recognition as with minorities.

    May Hashem grant us all a spirit of teshuva and inspiration to serve G-d will all our might.

  4. Yasher koach, Reb Zalman!

    You might want to correct the omission of the word "not" in point #5 of the second paragraph (you should not judge...).

    Also, I would recommend to Rabbi Rapoport that the proper analogy is not to a situation where "the only sexual relationships I could reasonably have would be with a member of the same gender" (since most people of heterosexual orientation can't imagine having or wanting sexual intimacy in such a relationship), but rather to one where the only available sexual relationships would violate other Torah prohibitions; e.g., with a gentile, or a former spouse whose next marriage has now ended.

    Thank you, donna, for your list!

    Michoel, when you find yourself overcome by the revulsion this idea arouses within you, those feelings can teach you more reliably about yourself than they can about the mind of G!d. Meanwhile, midrash, especially when read so selectively, cannot justify scapegoating. (I'm sorry if there is trouble in your family relationships, but it was not caused by anything LGBTQ people do.) The compassionate treatment you apparently advocate consists precisely of "pushing the natural proclivities of the animal soul beyond it's natural limits." Your own natural proclivities may tend toward people of the "opposite" sex/gender from your own, but theirs does not.

    1. thank you very much Hayyim, the missing word "Not" has been put back where it belongs. Interesting point for Rabbi Rapoport and the choice of analogy. To his credit he wrote from a place of compassion and empathy.

  5. The Torah cannot be the only source of wisdom in this matter. Contemporary social views and modern understanding must also be considered.
    Gays are part of our communities. To formalize their relationships, must they be driven from Orthodox congregations to Reform congregations?