My Gracious Host points us to a page that Shmuel (sometime Gentle Reader here) put together some great links on a panel on Being Gay in the Modern Orthodox World that was held at Yeshiva University. Y’all know I have little patience with the whole idea of the Modern Orthodox—I feel that much of halacha is as destructive as much of the Temple ritual, and am glad I can be Jewish without participating in either. I should probably write much more about this in general, at some point, but for the moment, I’ll just acknowledge that I do not feel myself constrained by the law against seed-spilling or the law against anal sex. Or the one against shellfish. Mmm, shellfish.
Anyway, I read a transcript posted by a student at YU, and I found it fascinating, moving and provocative. And I wound up reading more posts by that student, who is clearly conflicted about the issue (not about the halacha, which is fairly clear in the middle notwithstanding a good deal of disagreement about how wide the hedge around it should be), and then read a bunch of comments, which was of course a terrible, terrible mistake.
It occurs to me that if I am going to talk about this at all, I should talk just a bit about the Law as it applies here, and not just make an off-hand parenthetical comment. I am not an expert in this, and I want to emphasize that I am not particularly observant as a matter of practice nor as a matter of theory do I follow the sages or the modern Rabbis and their applications. I am very much outside the fold. That will be important to keep in mind. Still, I know a bit about the Law and the traditions, and if any of y’all know more, it would be helpful for me to have any correction or clarification, and if y’all know less, then keep reading.
Here’s the core: Leviticus 18:22 says something like You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. The most liberal interpretation of this within mainstream Jewish Orthodox thought is an absolute prohibition on male-male penile-anal penetration to ejaculation. That is like eating scallops wrapped in bacon. It may be wonderful, but it is a violation of the Law, and there is no way around that. The question is what else is a violation. This is in part an interpretation of the verse itself, and in part an interpretation of the hedge around the Law (which we have discussed before here). So, taking for instance the act of one male pleasuring another by anal penetration with a dildo or vibrator: is this sufficiently different from the proscribed act to be allowed? Probably not. With a tongue? Hm. What about fellatio? Or a hand job? My understanding is that almost all mainstream traditional rabbis consider all those acts to be forbidden, either directly by the verse or by the implication of the verse.
Now, when we are talking about the hedge, there are a couple of things that come into play. First, there’s a categorization of laws (both prohibitions and obligations) into things that make sense and things that are arbitrary. That is, the obligation to honor your father and mother makes sense, and therefore we are obliged not only to honor our biological father and mother, but an adoptive father and mother, and a stepfather or stepmother, or even by extension a teacher, mentor or elder. The prohibition against shellfish, however, is arbitrary, so although we must not eat crab meat, we can eat surimi (assuming it has been prepared properly). We may not be able to taste the difference (how would we, lacking the experience), but there is a difference, and we have avoided the infraction. So when deciding where the hedge is, that’s an important factor: is the prohibition against anal sex a sensible one or an arbitrary one? Unsurprisingly, opinions differ.
The other major factor in determining how big a hedge should be is temptation: if (going back to our topic for a moment) a gay couple are getting tremendous pleasure from their hands, mouths, cocks, asses and vibrators in all the variations they can think of except penile-anal penetration, will they be tempted to violate the prohibition, in a moment of frenzied passion? If so, it is generally considered admirable to avoid that situation (although of course there are stories of rabbis deliberately sleeping in the same bed as beautiful young women and conquering their yetzer ra, and although some commentary does criticize that behavior, the rabbis in question are not considered to have violated the Law and the majority strain of the tradition approves of them, as witness the inclusion of the stories). If the temptation is considered to be great and widespread, the hedge is not considered to be a matter of individual judgement, rather the rabbi can state where the hedge should be. If it’s a matter of leading others off the path, that is, where a person can without infringing the Law themselves lead others into a situation where they will infringe the law, either unknowingly or through overwhelming temptation, there is no question: it is forbidden, even if under other circumstances it might be allowed.
Furthermore (should I have skipped all this?) there is the matter of tradition: if there is a tradition prohibiting a particular thing as part of a hedge around the existing Law, the inheritors of that tradition are bound by it, unless positively released by an authority. The most common example of this is the difference in Passover observance between Ashkenazic Jews and Sephardim: the Sephardim eat rice (among other kitniyot) and the Ashkenazim do not. However, a Jew of an Ashkenazic family cannot simply declare herself a Sephard for the duration of Passover. She is bound by the minhag, the tradition.
Digression: I really shouldn’t add anything else to this note, but I don’t think I’ve ever made the point in this Tohu Bohu that in the case of a Sephard marrying an Ashkenaz, the new household should adopt the minhag of the woman, not the man. This is in part because the woman is assumed to be in charge of the house and particularly the kitchen, so it makes sense to use the traditional recipes that she would know rather than making her learn her mother-in-law’s recipes. It’s also for the same reason that our bloodlines are maternal: we know who the mother is. End Digression.
So where were we? Oh, yes. Orthodox Judaism generally has found that the prohibition against gay sex is sensible, and that tradition has made a very big hedge, and that anyway all that sex stuff is icky, and the hedge against straight sex (which is a mitzvah, after all) is about a mile high and six miles deep, so there. For a man to have a boyfriend, to hold hands and snuggle in the evening, to exchange loving words and looks, is all banned. Forget teabagging, they ban waltzing. Not a surprise, but it’s worth keeping in mind that they could make different decisions about the law. They are bound to keep the prohibitions in the Torah itself, yes, but they have some latitude to make the very broad interpretation of that prohibition much, much, much narrower without giving up that prohibition (the way that I feel free to do).
Good Gumby, this is a long note, and I haven’t got to the point of it, yet. Are y’all still with me? Because I did have a point, this time, and I’m getting to it soon. Well, soonish. Y’all know I tend to do the breaking-down-into-categories thing to think about topics, so that’s what came most clearly to mind, because some of the discussion I saw was so utterly confused about some things I find very distinct. So it seems to me that the Modern Orthodox community must decide how to treat:
A) Gay and lesbian people who grew up in the fold, and have decided as adults to leave the tradition, in part (at least) because it does not allow them to marry their loves and have sex with them. This might be fairly easy, as it is a kind of mutual expulsion, although of course that expulsion is heartbreaking for divided families and friends, and can lead people away from the path of righteousness altogether.
2) Gay and lesbian adults who are, like the panelists appear to be (to me, at any rate), passionate about staying in the fold and concerned with acting according to the Law, but who are certain of their orientation. This is very difficult. Very, very difficult. I tend to think that this panel and the discussion leading to it and from it will help people come up with some ways of thinking about it that are helpful. I do understand that many Rabbis will have a lot of trouble accepting that these people are good observant Jews that are perfectly naturally attracted to members of the same sex. The law may make it difficult on these people, but that isn’t their fault, and they should be treated with care and joy. As a side note, if anybody happens on this that could use the info, or could usefully pass it along, The Gay and Lesbian Yeshiva Day School Alumni Association seems to be a good source of information and links for people in this category.
γ) Young adults who are trying to figure out their sexual identity, preferences and orientation, being guided by the community and the Law. This seems less difficult to me, but it does require a kind of forthrightness about the existence of sexual passions of various kinds, which seems (from what I understand) to be present in the Law and the rabbinic discussion of the Law, but most often missing from conversations with actual children. At any rate, these young people should be able to know where the Law is clear and where it is not, what their obligations are and are not. Most important, they should all know that same-sex attraction is a natural thing, much like shrimp or roast pork, and that while a Jew may be prohibited from acting on it (or at least in acting on it in particular ways, depending on which authorities you follow), there is nothing disgusting about it.
iv) Kids who are ‘different’ and fail to act in exact accordance with gender expectations. The panelists tell stories that would be shocking if they weren’t so terribly, terribly common. I would have thought there would be a consensus of commentators and scholars that these kids have violated no aspect of the Law, and the behavior of the schools, camps, shuls, and families to them is a violation of the kind specifically stated (again and again, in Pirke Avot, by sages who agree on little else) to be outrages against the Divine and the Law, inconsistent with righteousness.
That’s what struck me most—these panelists were describing their histories with specific focus on the harm that they took before they identified themselves as gay frum Jews. Many of the responses (almost all the ones I happened to see) reacted to the question of how to treat gay frum Jews. Well, fine, that’s an issue. But it’s turning away from the harm that was done to those people, and that turning away is another harm, and is absolutely and unquestionably a violation of the ethics that we’ve been reading here at this Tohu Bohu.
Now, I took some grief, myself, as a child, for being different. I have been called effeminate (I have been called a great big poncy ponce, in fact, but not recently), and when I was a kid, I was hurt by the scorn of others on that topic as well as on others. But I wasn’t told, at the age of ten, that I was evil. The idea that anybody could react to this
the next day my parents were called in to Rabbi Monk’s office. And he takes off a book from the shelf by a rabbi who happens to be my father’s great-uncle and he says ‘there’s no natural desire for homosexuality. It must be that it’s only rebellion against God and it only happens after you’ve explored every other taivah’ and then he looked at me. I was TEN. Only ten! And it made sense to everyone in the room. Except me. And I was kicked out of camp.
by criticizing the man who tells the story is an outrage against Judaism’s ethical principles. Remember, the ten-year-old boy who is accused not just of an abomination but of every abomination has not been taking it up the ass. He has not even been holding hands. He said, when asked, that he liked boys. This is not a violation of halacha. And accusing him like that is.
And it is a violation whether the ostracized kid grows up to be frum and gay, or (like me) a straight man who likes showtunes and fancy clothes. You have no way of knowing which is which.
And, of course, it is a violation of ethics even if the kid grows up to eat scallops and bacon, take it up the ass, and charge interest on loans. No excuses. You don’t treat people that way.
Which is why it is so great for the panelists to come to Yeshiva University and say they were treated that way, and for YU, however reluctantly, to invite them.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,