Recently, while doing research for a news article I was writing for The Jewish Press, I found myself watching a YouTube clip concerning Jewish homosexuals. About two minutes into the clip, my heart suddenly dropped. There speaking on my computer screen was a young man I had once known as a sweet frum boy. Today – as I discovered from the YouTube video – he is an open homosexual.
I don’t know when this young man – I’ll call him Dovid – declared himself a homosexual. As I watched the clip, my mind wandered back to the summer I served as his waiter in camp; when I took him around an amusement park on the camp’s grand trip; when he looked to me as his anchor as he dared go on his first roller coaster.
Seeing him speak shamelessly as a homosexual on YouTube pained me. “Why?” I asked Dovid’s image on my computer screen, as if he could somehow hear me. “Why must you publicize your orientation for the whole world to know?”
Being attracted to other men while growing up in an Orthodox Jewish community must be difficult for any young male. And keeping one’s struggles private can be lonely and depressing. But are closeted homosexuals the only ones who struggle in solitude and silence? Don’t tens of thousands of Orthodox teenagers and young adults – to say nothing of older men and women who never married – struggle silently with their attraction to the opposite sex?
For so many issues, one can attend lectures that offer chizuk and advice. Hardly any for this issue. In so many areas of life one can discuss personal difficulties with friends. Not in this area. Some individuals hint at their struggles to a particular rebbe to whom they feel close, and here and there one may also encounter allusions to this topic in various sefarim. By and large, though, unmarried heterosexual Orthodox Jews suffer in solitude.
But do those Jews complain? Do Catholic priests, the overwhelming majority of whom remain celibate their entire lives, complain? No. They wage their internal battles quietly, recognizing that not every topic need be discussed openly and not every feeling need be publicized and validated.
Why, then, can’t Orthodox homosexuals do the same? Why can’t they struggle silently and heroically as do so many others?
Instead of complaining that no one understands them, why can’t they see their battle as an opportunity to reach unique levels of righteousness? Most contemporary Jewish thinkers view marital relations positively, but Judaism has always had an ascetic streak as well. The Rambam’s son, Rabbeinu Avraham, seems to extol the Talmudic sage Ben Azzai and the prophets Eliyahu and Elisha who never married (see chapters 10-12 in his Hamaspik L’Ovdei Hashem). Moshe Rabbeinu of course did marry, but according to the Talmud he never knew his wife intimately after spending 40 days and nights in communion with God. According to this line of thinking, those Jews who find it impossible to marry a woman can arguably reach levels of holiness unattainable by others.
But many Orthodox homosexuals seem uninterested in attaining spiritual greatness or in struggling with their feelings like so many of their brethren. Instead, they declare that we must recognize them. We must acknowledge their desires. We must affirm their feelings.
Why do they demand this recognition?
No single explanation provides a full answer, but contemporary culture deserves a large share of the blame. We live in a self-centered society where the only thing that matters is “me” and “my feelings.” Duty is passé. An emotionally stable life has replaced the well-lived life as man’s highest goal. As Federal Judge Janice Rogers Brown once said, “To be or not to be is no longer the question. The question is: How do you feel?”
And if subjective feelings rather than objective truth are of paramount importance, why shouldn’t homosexuals tell the whole world about their innermost desires? “Why should I hide a part of myself?” they ask. “It’s me. It’s who I am.”
Jewish thought teaches one to be embarrassed of one’s failings, to hide one’s flaws from man and God, to repress one’s base characteristics and desires. To be holy, according to many Jewish thinkers (see, for example, Rashi on Leviticus 19:2), is to avoid prohibited sexual thoughts and deeds. Not for naught did God seal His covenant with the Jewish people with the bris milah. “This is the summons the seal of Abraham brings to you – stifle animal desires at their outset, stifle them at their birth,” writes Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in his Horeb. “To keep this seal of the covenant as something holy is fundamental to the eternity of [the Jewish] people.”