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