Latest update: December 3rd, 2012
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.
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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