The brouhaha that has ensued over The Jewish Standard’s printing a same-sex marriage announcement in September may yet lead to a great deal of good, especially in the Orthodox community, in getting people to think more seriously about an issue that impacts thousands of Jewish lives.
I have been a member of Cong. Ahavath Torah, an Orthodox synagogue in Englewood, for 38 years. My rabbi, Shmuel Goldin, was in the vortex of the storm that ensued after he forcefully protested the printing of the marriage announcement. Rabbi Goldin represented the voices of members of the congregation who felt that printing the announcement contravened fundamental Orthodox beliefs by violating the traditional Jewish definition of marriage and giving legitimacy to homosexual unions, which are a breach of Torah law.
Twelve years ago, my daughter Tamar informed my wife and me that she was in love with a woman. Needless to say we were very distraught, as much by the horrible emotional anguish that our beloved daughter had been subjected to over the preceding several years as by the news that she was now different from most women in a very fundamental way. But for my wife and me there was never any question of rejecting Tamar or of altering our relationship to her in any way.
Over the next several years my wife and I learned a great deal about the homosexual community, about their suffering and struggle to be accepted into society and, in Tamar’s case, into the community in which she was raised. Tamar and her partner Arielle recently celebrated their fifth anniversary following a commitment ceremony and are a happy couple pursuing their respective careers.
How can my wife and I, as members of an Orthodox Jewish community, countenance all this?
The answers lie in our love for our daughter and her partner, our sense of basic human decency and fairness, and our feeling that Judaism is a religion to enrich rather than impoverish our lives.
First and foremost is our certainty that our daughter did not choose to be a lesbian. We have absolutely no doubt that her sexual orientation was chosen for her by genetic and biologic determinants over which she had no control. And we feel that this is true for the vast majority of gay people. If you will, God created her gay. If sexual orientation were purely a matter of choice, why would anyone voluntarily choose a path that so often leads to enormous emotional pain and suffering, and even, as we have recently seen, to suicide?
If that is the case, and the overwhelming majority of professionals who deal with these issues feel that this is so, it would be the height of cruelty to deny gays the fundamental right to companionship and physical intimacy that heterosexuals take for granted. The very same Torah that proscribes male homosexual intimacy states that after creating the first human being, God saw that “it is not good that man should be alone.” The very first divine observation made by God after creating man is that loneliness is intolerable and therefore, “I will make him a helpmate.” It is noteworthy that the term helpmate is gender neutral, perhaps implying that a person’s loneliness can be remedied by the close companionship of either sex.
More to the point, however, is the fact that 2,000 years ago, the rabbis of the Talmud grappled with a similar problem of innocent human suffering caused by a Torah commandment. Eliezer Berkovits in his book “Not in Heaven” discusses the moral conundrum for these rabbis posed by the law of the mamzer. The Torah states that a mamzer (a child born of a biblically prohibited union) was not permitted into the family community of the Jewish people. This was a very severe sentence for the innocent offspring of such a union. Although the law was intended to discourage such unions, the unfairness to innocent children was keenly felt by the rabbis. They sought to ameliorate the lot of the mamzer by applying the law very infrequently. In fact, the rabbis of the Talmud sought to circumvent the unfairness of a Torah law for innocents by burdening its applications with many restrictions. There are other examples where the rabbis greatly modified or even overturned a Torah law for compelling societal reasons.
The similarity of the law of the mamzer to the Torah proscription again homosexual sex is evident. In both cases innocent Jews suffer greatly because of a Torah law. The only way an Orthodox gay Jew can avoid transgressing this law is through a lifetime of celibacy. I challenge any rabbi who recommends this course to a Jewish homosexual to look into his heart and say whether he would be capable of such self-deprivation.
The challenge for the Orthodox Jewish community, and especially for its religious leaders, is to deal with the Torah prohibition against homosexuality in the same manner of compassion that the rabbis of the Talmud dealt with the law of the mamzer. It is easy to command that the letter of the law be adhered to – especially when it is someone else who suffers. It would be more difficult, but courageous and humane, for Orthodox rabbis to follow the ways of Hillel, who was known for his kindness and concern for humanity, rather than the ways of Shammai, who was far stricter in his interpretation of the law. Unfortunately, we live in a time when the flag of Shammai is ascendant.
Within the Orthodox Jewish community there are, however, hopeful signs that at least some rabbis are sensitive to the plight of the observant gay Jew. More than 100 Orthodox leaders recently signed the “Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews With a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community.” This document, while reaffirming the Torah prohibition against gay sexual acts, advocates understanding, compassion, and inclusion of gay Jews within the Jewish community. This document would not have been signed by Orthodox leaders only a few years ago.
Lastly, I must commend Rabbi Goldin for signing the document. It is sad that because of the more rigid halachic positions of most Orthodox rabbis, Rabbi Goldin’s position required courage. But the process of re-examining the Orthodox position on homosexuality has begun – and there is no turning back.