In the series of posts that I have been writing about welcoming various populations of Jewish people, I am not purporting to address the halachic (Jewish legal) implications of the lives of populations of Jews, I am rather exploring how we as an Orthodox community can tweak our vision of the world and of people, in order to cultivate more welcoming Orthodox communities that can in turn be open to the widest range of Jews.
Last week I wrote of welcoming intermarried families and this week I would like to address how we see another population of Jews that often feels unwelcomed -Jewish people who are not physically attracted to people of the opposite gender, but only to the same gender, and how we as communities observant of halacha can welcome them and to what extent.
Various studies estimate that anywhere from 4%-20% of the American population is homosexual. It would be dangerous for us to believe that Orthodox Jews are an exception. That the torah forbids men from having sexual relations with each other is testament that in the Torah’s preview such a desire does exist.
My community encompasses several gay members, some are open about it and some are not, some have partners or are married and others are not, some live a celibate life alone (or have tried to) and others do not. Just as there isn’t one type of heterosexual person so too there is not homogeneity among homosexuals. Ultimately people are individuals (an entire universe of their own, as the Mishna in Sanhedrin says), and must be attended to as such.
What should an orthodox Rabbi do when a congregant comes out to him? What should an Orthodox community’s attitude be toward their gay brethren? Should we reject them? Accept them? Tell them they can never live a life with a family and have children? Find them a proper partner?
I would argue that while Orthodox rabbis and communities can’t celebrate same gender weddings, at the same time we do not have to concern ourselves with what happens in everyone’s bedrooms. For instance, some upstanding Orthodox rabbis perform weddings for people they know are not going to go to the mikvah regularly (though we hope they will one day). Halachikally in fact, it may be worse for a man to have intercourse with a woman who has not gone to the mikvah after menstruating, than it is for a lesbian couple to be intimate and possibly even for a gay male couple to be intimate (in some ways).
Perhaps we should take at face value that people are living together and raising Jewish families together. Though I am not suggesting celebrating or performing same gender weddings, perhaps we can celebrate the fact that two people commit to living with each other forever, raising Jewish observant children together, keeping Shabbos as a family, keeping kosher, singing nigunim and learning Torah.
I am not suggesting we change the Torah or Jewish law, rather I am pointing out ways we can view things in order to better welcome the entire Jewish people into communities that study and observe the Torah.
We may fear that by being welcoming to gay Jews and families with same gender parents we are implicitly offering legitimacy to things the torah forbids. But aren’t we just as scared of condemning people to a lonely life that they cannot lead? I am not saying no one can be celibate; certainly there are people who can do it. There are people who will commit their lives to serving the community, to a relationship only with God and with friends with no intimacy and no eizer kinegdo (helpmate). But this is not everyone and I’m not sure it’s the best path for most. How many joyous mitzvot that are most fully observed as a family must we sacrifice for this one issur (forbidden thing), which may be in many instances a rabbinic one?
I’m not saying we should be cavalier. I am not saying all of a sudden we should have engagement parties for gay couples, but what if we had a cake at kiddush one Shabbat (albeit a big cake or one with small writing) that said “Mazal Tov on your commitment to each other forever to raise a Jewish family!”?
I remember I was once at a meeting of rabbis where one Rabbi argued that we should protest the Jewish newspapers for including ads announcing gay marriages. He said if we did not our children would think it was ok to become gay. I have no doubt this Rabbi had never know a gay Orthodox Jew well. If he had he would know that often gay Orthodox Jews want nothing more than to be straight, it is not a choice most make.
I will finish with the wise words an observant gay Jew once said to me: We must be clear that there is a difference between halacha (Jewish law) and homophobia. When our personal fears and prejudices hide under the banner of halacha, when we use the Torah as a spade to dig with in service of our own predilections, egos and anxieties, we not only do a disservice to the Jewish people but to the Torah itself.