What Should A Gay Jew Do?
The issue of homosexuality is complicated and tests our legal and practical sensibilities in a vast range of ways. It’s also hugely emotive both among those who are gay, or are gay supporters, and among those who fear Masorti is sliding away from the acceptance of the binding nature of our tradition. Faced with these complications we, as Rabbinic leaders in the Movement, have largely kept ‘shtum.’ We have hoped that members and others will deduce a general welcome of anyone regardless of sexuality without making that welcome explicit, partly out of our own discomfort and partly out of a desire to avoid the inevitable scorn that greets anyone perceived as treading too liberal a path on these matters. I’m not convinced that this silence is tenable or appropriate. For a Movement founded on the principle of speaking truths even if they bring criticism, this equivocation fails our raison d’etre.
I don’t get asked – ‘Rabbi, should I be gay?’ The question simply doesn’t come to me. Rather I get what the rabbis call ‘bd’ieved’ questions, post-facto questions – Since I am gay, am I still welcome in your shul? Since I have a gay partner, will you recognise us as a family? Since our son has same-sex parents, can you accept him in the Cheder? Actually even these ‘bd’ieved’ questions overstate what passes my metaphorical Rabbinic in-tray on issues around homosexuality. Many gay Jews feel traditional Judaism views them and their heart’s inclination with such opprobrium that they simply avoid anything to do with us – do I want to encourage them to be more involved or should I watch them disappear for our people? Others sit in the very back rows of our Synagogues ducking eye contact, not sure who to trust and from whom they should hide – dishonesty fostered in what should be a house of truth.
I am not, in this short paper, going to offer a fully worked through Halachic position, rather I am going to offer a whistle-stop trip through the principles which underlie how I read our Masorah – tradition – on this issue.
False Paths – Rights and Privacy
‘Rights’ based discourse dominates much secular discussion of these issues, but that kind of language is largely foreign to Jewish thought. I don’t, as a matter of Halachah, have a right to free speech or certainly any right to engage sexually with a chosen other. Judaism is built around systems of responsibility – I have the responsibility to speak carefully and kindly. So when I say Halachic Judaism does not recognise the right of a person to chose a life-partner or sexual partner of any gender that’s not because I don’t care about ways in which a heart moves a person who is gay, but rather because I don’t accept that Halachic Judaism should use this sort of discourse.
Equally I am unmoved by claims that ‘what goes on in the privacy of a bedroom’ is not a religious concern. Judaism believes that whatever we do, we do it before God. ‘Know Before Whom You Stand,’ is a phrase often found above the Synagogue arks and it applies equally under the covers. To the traditional Jew, everything matters – there is Halachic discussion of the order in which a person should put on their socks, Halachic discussion of the materials from which socks can made, Halachic discussion of the way in which the cotton can be picked and so on and so on. Viewed in the context of Judaism’s concern with every aspect of life the insistence that our sexual practices are of religious concern isn’t to obsess over sexuality, rather it fits into a concern for all parts of life.
The Halachic system requires Rabbis show a sense of proportion when opining on matters of same-sex attraction. As a general matter Judaism is very slow to castigate internal emotional states and feeling drawn to a person of the same sex is no sin in itself. But even when it comes to acts, as opposed to ‘mere’ feelings, there is more nuance than an oversimplified view might suggest. Male-to-male intercourse is deemed an ‘issur d’oratia’ - a Torah mandated prohibition, but lesbian sexual engagement is considered ‘pritzut d’alma’ - ‘generally lewd’ - the same level of disdain as is shown towards the wearing of red clothing (Yevamot 76a and Berachot 20a). Acts of male-to-male sexual intimacy short of penetration are prohibited, but less severely. And there are strange byways in the Talmudic corpus where actions that might be connected to homosexual intimacy are glossed over. This is not the place to fight out the precise meaning of these often elliptical texts but, for example, in Kiddushin 82a the Wise accept two men can ‘share a blanket’ in a context which suggests an awareness of same-sex intimacy. There are positions taken by the American branch of our Movement which do overturn many, if not all, of the prohibitions in the classic Halacha but I am not going to argue that the forbidden be deemed not forbidden, but rather that a sense of nuance is preserved, especially when we are dealing with the need a person might feel for intimate companionship.
Morality, Halachah and Disobedience
Morality - acts of goodness – and Halachah – the Jewish legal system – are not one and the same. Judaism is not amoral, but the web of prohibitions, permissions, compulsions and exemptions are not only about morality. This is a particularly important point to make in the light of some of the moral opprobrium directed towards those who are gay by some religious leaders. The Bible outlaws male to male intercourse as a ‘Toevah,’ but the King James translators perhaps let some of their own discomfort with homosexual intercourse impact on their choice of ‘abomination’ as a translation of this strange word. The Bible considers eating pork or shellfish a ‘Toevah’ (Lev 11:10, Deut 14:3) but I don’t consider a person who eats ham is acting immorally, even if they are Jewish. The very first time the Bible mentions the term ‘Toevah’ (Gen 43:32) it refers to the way Egyptians perceived what it would mean to eat with a Jew. Most frequently the term refers to Jews committing acts of cultic idolatry (Deut 7:25, 12:31, 13:15). A ‘Toevah’ is a national and particular wrong, it’s not universal, it’s not moral. A committed intimate relationship between two people of the same sex is not immoral, even if it involves a breach of the Halachah, and I oppose the use of verses such as Lev 18:22 to suggest that it is.
It’s worth noting that the Halachic system imposes significant limits on physical intimacy between a married couple and certainly has much to say on intimate relationships between unmarried Jews, let alone relationships between Jews and non-Jews. There are many, let it be said, in our communities who, in their intimate relationships with life partners (and more casual partners) breach acts of Halachah. We need to ensure that our response on issues of homosexual intimacy bears a sense of proportion to our responses on issues of heterosexual intimacy.
What Should A Gay Jew Do?
This question goes to heart of the responsibility I feel in my engagement with this issue.
The vast majority of my Orthodox colleagues expect a Jew who is clear about their gay sexual identity to live alone, without a central sanctified relationship with another they can love spiritually, emotionally and erotically. Frankly this has to be better counsel than the advice to marry a woman in pretence, or the suggestion that a firm gay sexual orientation can be ‘reversed’ through therapy. But there is a verse which speaks about such a life-sentence of loneliness – ‘it is not good for a person to be alone.’ (Gen 2:18). The Hebrew term used here – ‘Tov’ can only be translated to mean ‘good.’ Goodness is not cultic or particular. Goodness is the language of universal morality. This verse weighs particularly heavily on me especially in the context of the huge blessing I find in my own finding of a partner with whom I hope to share the rest of my life in every way. It makes it impossible for me to feel called or able to insist gay Jews live a life devoid of the intimacy which I, as a married hetrosexual, enjoy so profoundly. I am deeply moved by this Aggadic claim but I accept there is also a theological issue at work. Maybe if my theology was more classically orthodox I would absolutely accept the inerrant truth of Halachic prohibitions on gay sexual intimacy and vocally oppose all forms of it. But I am a Masorti Jew. I accept the obligation to observe the Mitzvot, but I am niggled by the belief that human discomfort with gay sex may be influencing our Halachic sources and that compounds my refusal to demand gay Jews live lives of loneliness. Seeing committed gay and lesbian Jews creating passionate and committed Jewish lives together also strengthens me to push towards the edge of what traditional Judaism has maintained in previous years.
What do I want? I want Jews to find other Jews with whom to make lives together. I want them to commit to one another and treat that committed relationship as sacred. As a Rabbi I want to support such couples as they build ‘Batim neemanim b’yisrael’ – faithful houses in Israel, and if such couples are blessed with children, through means natural or assisted by science or adoption, I will do everything I can to support the children growing as committed Jews who feel rooted and inspired by their Jewish families and tradition. I want Jews who can only find such a partner among members of the opposite sex to do that, and I want Jews who can only find such a partner among members of the same sex to do that also. When it comes to matters of sexual intimacy I would hope that couples both straight and gay allow the restrictions the Halachah imposes on all of us to influence the decisions we make, sexually, and I hope and believe it is possible for couples both gay and straight to find opportunities for meaningful and profound intimacy within the corpus of permissions and regulations the Halachic framework allows. But I am not going to use such power as I have as a Rabbi to point fingers at those who might fall short of obligations to observe the rules on sexual propriety gay and straight Jews face.
When it comes to the question of ceremonies which recognise these committed gay unions I struggle. For me the ability to perform both religious and civil wedding ceremonies for heterosexual couples is a tremendous honour and I understand the way in which many gay Jews will want their relationships to be sanctified by a representative of their own faith. Ceremonies are important; public blessings also strengthen a commitment between couples and allow friends and family members opportunities to share their own ‘Amen,’ but many of the elements of a traditional Chuppah are not suitable for the consecration of a partnership between man and man and I don’t advocate plucking them from their hetrosexual realm and dropping them into a homosexual one. That said I know that offering gay Jews what can be perceived to be merely a quasi or ersatz-marriage can be seen as demeaning, even if that is not the intention. It may be that one way forward would be to explore using shutafut – partnership - language and ritual for both straight and gay celebrations, moving away from the traditional marriage rituals associated with kinyan – acquisition of a woman by a man in ways very close to the patterns of acquisition of chattel. Personally, as the Rabbi of New London Synagogue and as a Masorti Jew, I feel there much more to do in terms of exploring appropriate religious rituals (including, should it be necessary, in the case of separation of a gay couple) around this issue. That said I welcome and support the governmental sanction and recognition of intimate committed relationships between gay couples not only as a marker of commitment but also for the important civil legal protections that these arrangements offer.
There is danger in putting these thoughts in writing. The issue can be one which divides and fractures religious communities. My hope and prayer is that we, Masorti Jews, are sufficiently used to the range of opinions which mark our engagement in complex issues such as this and sufficiently convinced of the importance of articulating the nature of our welcome to gay and lesbian Jews to make this contribution nonetheless welcome.
Rabbi Jeremy Gordon