This short essay will develop five critical points for responding to the voices within the broader community that seek to accept and legitimize homosexual conduct, an activity that directly contradicts the dictates of halacha.
While we view such developments from an adversarial perspective, great thought must go into the process of developing an appropriate response. We must balance ideals and pragmatism while taking into consideration the nature of the halachic violation, the motivation behind it, and its cultural context. This remains particularly true with regard to counseling individual community members who struggle with or act upon homosexual inclinations. Each point remains crucial, as the appropriate response to this issue, as with so many others, requires a holistic, nuanced approach that appreciates the complexities of this phenomenon.
The Act: Halachic Judaism views same-sex activity, in all its forms, as sinful. Approaches that do not adopt this as their starting point must be dismissed within the Orthodox community. If we are to approach this topic with any intellectual honesty, we must loyally accept the dictates of Jewish law. The fact that halacha categorizes various homosexual acts with different degrees of severity does not reflect any sense that lesser acts are permitted. The overall legal prohibition remains, as does the moral condemnation found in aggadic and non-legal texts.
Further, we need to recognize that such activity is governed by the same free-will choices as all other sexual behavior. As such, it is unwise to put forward a halachic approach dependent on the “resolution” of the highly politicized question of the origins of homosexual orientation, colloquially known as “nature or nurture.” (We suspect there is some truth in both approaches, leaving the ultimate question as to how much control a person has in determining his or her sexual orientation.)
While this dispute absorbs much of the public dialogue – among religious and secularists alike – it remains irrelevant to the halachic discussion. Even if orientation is innate, every healthy person can choose whether or not to act on inclinations, no matter how strong those inclinations may be. Conversely, if this orientation develops, in one form or another, as a result of life experiences, it does not minimize the struggle of a halachically-committed Jew to choose not to act on such inclinations.
The Actors: Even as halacha clearly labels the act a sin, Judaism does not seek to label the actors as evildoers whom we must shun. The halachic tradition has a longstanding policy of diverse attitudes to transgressors, and only in the most rare of circumstances does it mandate excluding people from the community, especially for wrongdoing that does not explicitly harm others.
Some communities have expectations that all of their members maintain total Orthodox practice. Other communities maintain more open membership standards, sensing a need to create a place for all to come and worship, including those who drive to synagogue on Shabbat, do not observe taharahat hamishpacha (family purity restrictions), eat out in non-kosher restaurants, or even cheat in business.
As in the case with Shabbat violators, many communities will find it more appropriate to welcome gays who remain discreet about their personal activity and who respect the Orthodox setting, with no aim of sparking denigration of Torah law. Provocateurs with anti-halachic agendas will find themselves less welcome, and rightly so. The larger point remains that accepting a gay individual within one’s shul does not reflect any less commitment to halacha than accepting public Shabbat violators.
One might argue that, given the larger cultural battles raging throughout America, any form of acceptance of homosexual individuals might weaken our moral stand to the outside world and our halachic position within our community. While this approach is certainly tempting, as it avoids dealing with difficult questions of individual sensitivities, it remains unpersuasive, as well as unwise on an individual level.
First, there is a clear distinction between recognition and sensitivity versus acceptance and legitimization. Moreover, no matter how fierce the cultural battle, we still must care for every Jew with respect and sensitivity, and refrain from pigeonholing them as part of a war in which they may likely not be engaged or have any desire to join.
Additionally, the fear that increased sensitivity will encourage a coming-out or movement of “homosexual Orthodoxy” seems misplaced, not only because of our public insistence on the grave sin of homosexual acts, but because the sociological nature of our community’s family structure strongly discourages it. How many openly and actively gay Orthodox Jews exist in the world? We think very few. Everyone understands the deep philosophical, halachic, and sociological contradiction of this identity, and, as is currently evidenced in the non-Orthodox denominations, only the blatant misinterpretation of halachic tradition would distort that reality.