Gay Jews have been the subject of much contention in the Jewish community, particularly the Orthodox Jewish community for some time. The film "Trembling Before G-d" sparked an even bigger debate and led to the formation of Jewish Outlook.
Let me disabuse Rabbi X (“Gay Pride in Jerusalem: Guilt vs dishonesty??) of the notion that I feel any guilt about being gay. To do so, would be as absurd as feeling guilty about being left-handed or having blue eyes. Underlying X’s patronizing article, are a number of myths about homosexuality which need to be addressed.
The first myth is the notion that sexual orientation can be reduced to sexual acts. In the last 100 years, scientific investigation of human sexuality has revealed the existence of a “sexual orientation??: a generally fixed aspect of the self that determines to whom individuals are attracted and with whom they seek intimate relationships. Conservatively, 5 percent of the human species have a gay sexual orientation. This reveals the central flaw in X’s analogy: no one has a fundamental aspect of their self that renders them a sabbath-violator.
Unfortunately, many Orthodox rabbis in SA still exhibit a medieval understanding of homosexuality. I have counselled a number of observant lesbian and gay people whose rabbis have propounded the second myth: they have urged them to ‘change’ their sexual orientation, through going to ‘reparative therapy’. However, the overwhelming scientific view is expressed by the American Psychiatric Association when it states that “there is no scientific evidence that reparative or conversion therapy is effective in changing a person’s sexual orientation. There is, however, evidence that this type of therapy is destructive??. Those destructive effects range from clinical depression to self-destructive behaviour, including suicide. It is high time our Orthodox religious leadership stopped irresponsibly playing with the lives of lesbian and gay people who come to them for guidance.
The third myth perpetrated by X is his reduction of gay relationships to sex. This is tantamount to saying that a straight man’s relationship with his wife can be reduced to the sexual activity that occurs between them. However, as with straight people, gay relationships run the full gamut of spiritual, emotional and physical connection. To pretend that they are merely reducible to sexual behaviour is fundamentally to misunderstand lesbian and gay people and our relationships.
The problem for X with acknowledging these realities is that they must fundamentally challenge the fourth myth: that any expression of romantic love between members of the same sex is wrong. Rather, it is the condemnation and denigration of a significant minority of our community to lives of repression and loneliness that is harmful and wrong. To condemn a gay person for seeking relationships with members of the same sex would be similar to the cruelty of condemning a left-handed person for using their left hand in order to function in the world.
The modern understanding of homosexuality, together with the lack of any credible moral arguments against it, have led many rabbis to recognise that homosexuality poses a deep and difficult challenge for Jewish tradition. Some, such as Rabbi Chaim Rapoport and Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardoza have attempted to use certain narrow strategies to grapple with this problem; others such as Rabbi Steven Greenberg, have suggested more ambitious halachic solutions.
The problem with ad hominen attacks such as that of X against my intellectual honesty is that they often rebound against the very person making them. It is evident from his article that X has never read Greenberg’s book or has wilfully misunderstood it. If he had, he would have known that Greenberg, a champion of women’s rights, is at pains to show how the prohibition in Leviticus 18:22 against the humiliation and degradation of men through sex, applies with equal force to women (elaboration on this argument can be found in Chapter 13 of Greenberg’s award-winning book Wrestling with G-d and Men: Homosexuality in Jewish tradition). We are enjoined to ensure that our sexual relationships – whether gay or straight – are conducted on the basis of equality and mutual respect. Greenberg thus shows how we can plumb the depths of the Torah for great wisdom in this crucial area of our lives once we remove our homophobic spectacles – and still remain faithful to our tradition.
Perhaps, our rabbis should think long and hard about the many Jewish lesbian and gay people (and their families) who are hurt through their myopic and hateful rhetoric. It saddens me to think of the many lesbian and gay people who, seeking a sense of self and a way in which to reconcile their Judaism and sexuality, are told by their religious leaders that they cannot do so, that their sexuality is something shameful, to be hidden and denied. Many such people are led to despair: some skulk around in a shadowy existence, living a lie, others live in generally unhappy marriages, and yet others take the tragic step of committing suicide. The other most common option for lesbian and gay Jews I have met is to leave Judaism and reject a tradition they have been told is unable to accommodate them in their full humanity and dignity.
Some of us are perhaps taking a more difficult course in being prepared neither to reject our Judaism nor our homosexuality. We will not live with the hypocrisy and inauthenticity of many of the congregants that, surprisingly, Rabbi X praises. We know and understand that G-d has created gay and lesbian people, just as straight people were created, as part of the wonderful, diverse tapestry of our world. And that our sexuality and relationships are beautiful, life-enhancing features of our lives that offer the same opportunities for sanctity, connection and love that all human beings, whether gay or straight, desire.