Latest update: December 3rd, 2012
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.
The Political: In addition to the significant distinctions made, in the halachic realm, between the act and the actors, we need to distinguish between our halachic statements and our political activity. Politics makes strange bedfellows, especially in multicultural democratic societies like America. The pragmatic decision to support equal rights for gays in the political realm is not inconsistent with our view that the underlining activity violates Jewish (and Noachide) law.
We support religious freedom for all, even as we are aware that some might use this freedom to violate Jewish or Noachide law. Similarly, it is wise to support workplace policies of non-discrimination based on sexual orientation, just as we support such non-discrimination based on religion, even though these laws equally protect, for example, pagans. Discrimination based on lifestyle choices may threaten our own liberties, including freedom of religious expression. This pragmatic argument remains true irrespective of one’s views on the philosophical claims for equal treatment in the workplace or entitlement to domestic partner benefits.
A similarly balanced approach should be taken with regard to gay marriage. If one believes a civil prohibition of same-sex marriage does not threaten our rights in the long term, then joining a political alliance opposing such, based on shared values or interests, seems reasonable. If, however, one views such a campaign as an infringement of civil liberties, or a potentially bad precedent that might endanger our interests in other areas of civil life, then one should not feel compelled to combat gay marriage.
Alternatively, one might even contemplate supporting the so-called grand compromise that will allow federal “civil unions” while strongly preserving religious-conscience exemptions from recognizing those unions. We currently continue to oppose the civil legalization of same-sex marriage, but as this debate develops it will remain important not to overly conflate our religious views with our political stands.
The Context: Within the larger cultural war roiling modern American society, gay rights sometimes seems like ground zero. This stems, in part, from how some religious groups view the issue, which in turn becomes absorbed into the media and popular debate as the “religious viewpoint.” Yet as with many issues (stem-cell research, for example), it remains crucial for Orthodox Jews to stake out our own genuine positions and not simply follow the lead of non-Jews.
The more significantly threatening aspect of American culture is the primacy placed on self-fulfillment, particularly in one’s sexual life. The dictates and mores of Jewish law frequently clash with the current American ethical mindset, which promotes exercising personal autonomy toward achieving self-fulfillment. Within the highly eroticized Western culture, the greatest manifestation of this mentality is heterosexual promiscuity, followed closely by high divorce rates and startling amounts of adultery.
While halacha certainly recognizes the role of sexuality in shaping one’s identity and human experience, it definitively limits sexual activity to marriage and encourages such activity within marriage. The Jewish tradition counsels self-sacrifice and restraint to an extent that our secular society deems unreasonable or untenable, even more so on sexual matters.
In this context, the threats to the Orthodox way of life are much greater due to the culture of rampant heterosexual promiscuity than to homosexuality. The attempt to conventionalize homosexuality, while harmful, represents a decidedly less threatening manifestation of the ethos of sexual self-fulfillment. Few people are drawn to a gay life without an initial internal inclination, whereas the vast majority of men (and a smaller but significant number of women) contemplate with some interest and desire the promiscuous heterosexual life that is normal in secular America.
As promiscuity becomes more culturally acceptable, greater numbers within our community will succumb. In that sense, the focus on homosexual conduct causes us to miss the major problems of sexual ethics in our society: the problem of promiscuity and its impact on dating, marriage, and divorce.
The Pastoral: It is extremely important that we strike a balance between the pastoral needs of people with difficult challenges in front of them and our need to provide clear ethical guidance to the community. Homosexual individuals within our community regularly experience anguish, suppression, and depression, sometimes to the extent of self-endangerment. These cases deserve our empathy and understanding, albeit not to the point of any compromise in our commitment to halacha and our belief in free will.
Moreover, one must remember that good people sometimes succumb to the temptation of sin in many areas, including this one. We should further sympathetically appreciate how individuals with a homosexual orientation might yield to such temptations, as they have no licit outlet for intimate companionship. In this regard, his or her struggle remains much greater than that of the heterosexual adulterer or philanderer, who commits egregious immoral acts by rejecting permissible outlets for their desires. Our strongest condemnation should be reserved for these sins, which directly threaten the moral fabric of our community.
Finally, we must confront these issues in an open and clear manner. We will never succeed in properly educating our community – which is engaged economically, and to a certain extent, socially and academically with the broader society – without engaging in a frank and public discussion grounded in halacha, despite our natural discomfort with any conversation about these matters. While our multifaceted, holistic approach requires an appreciation for nuances and complexities, it remains, in our mind, the appropriate halachic response.
* * *
We have heard that the revered Rav Aharon Soloveichik, zt”l, when asked his thoughts on homosexuality, replied, “It is terrible. It is almost as great a sin as cheating in business.” Without being able to verify this story, and understanding that Rav Aharon might not have meant this in a technical halachic sense, this anecdote nonetheless highlights what we believe is a misplacement of priorities in the Orthodox world.
The Orthodox community currently faces two incredibly serious problems: heterosexual promiscuity and financial misconduct. We live, alas, in an era of scandals, an era in which chassidic rebbes go to jail for money-laundering and rabbis are arrested for selling organs, while blogs accuse rabbis who are running conversion courts of manipulations and sexual vices with candidates for conversion. These scandals reflect larger trends within our community of widespread betrayal and disloyalty: to the other gender, including spouses; to business associates; to the greater Orthodox community; and, ultimately, to Torah and mitzvot.
Halacha condemns homosexual acts, but the phenomenon of “Orthodox homosexuals” does not represent a major threat to the integrity of our community. Ultimately, we are afraid that disproportionate condemnation of this phenomenon gives unproductive focus to a red herring, leading to inappropriate responses to individual struggles and distracting us from the central problems truly plaguing our community.Rabbi Michael J. Broyde
About the Author: Rabbi Michael Broyde is a law professor at Emory University School of Law and a fellow in the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University.
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