Concentric Circles of Victims

In 2010, my teachers, Rabbis Nati Helfgot, Yitzchak Blau, and Aryeh Klapper, drafted a “Statement of Principles” on the place of homosexuals in the Orthodox community. The statement was signed and endorsed by dozens of Orthodox rabbis, mental health professionals, and educators. The document was carefully drafted, edited, and revised before publication, and the success of this consensus document can be seen in the list of contributors. The list includes many names of Liberal Orthodoxy’s “usual suspects” but also quite a few names of individuals with significant reputations within the Centrist Orthodox establishment. At the same time, the list generated a fair amount of controversy, even inspiring a reactionary “counter-statement,” which suggests that the statement was sufficiently significant to generate controversy. 

In my recollection, the most controversial element of the Statement of Principles was paragraph 7 which reads:

“Jews struggling to live their lives in accordance with halakhic values need and deserve our support. Accordingly, we believe that the decision as to whether to be open about one’s sexual orientation should be left to such individuals, who should consider their own needs and those of the community. We are opposed on ethical and moral grounds to both the “outing” of individuals who want to remain private and to coercing those who desire to be open about their orientation to keep it hidden.”

Some of the critics of the Statement of Principles argued, as I recall, that a benign regime of “don’t ask, don’t tell” could enable gay Jews to join our communities with subtly, but that openly gay Jews should not be integrated into our communities, shuls, and schools.

The New York Times published an op-ed this past Sunday that provides some quantitative support to the assertion of the Statement of Principles that encouraging individuals to be open about their identity and orientation is a positive step for Orthodoxy. 

The article by Seth Stephens Davidowitz cites research showing that while the number of openly gay men is greater in regions of the country with greater acceptance of homosexuality, relevant Google searches suggest that the percentage of the population that is homosexual is common among the fifty states (about 5%). The element of Davidowtiz’s article, however, that was most evocative for me was the description of the different Google searches in different parts of the country:

“In the United States, of all Google Searches that begin “Is my husband…,” the most common word to follow is “gay.”  “Gay” is 10 percent more common in such word searches than the second-place word, ‘cheating.’ It is 8 times more common than “an alcoholic” and 10 times more common than “depressed.”  Searches questioning a husband’s sexuality are far more common in the least tolerant states.”

When individuals are pressured, by their community, to treat core elements of their identity as a shameful secret, the circle of suffering expands, claiming new victims.


17 Responses to Concentric Circles of Victims

  1. Dr. Saundra Sterling Epstein says:

    I have been involved in educating members of our community and other parts of the Jewish world about the notion that we understand that one’s identity regarding gender and sexuality is core to one’s being for the past twenty years. This position is supported widely in the medical community and in many other venues as well. As an educator who has had the privilege of working and learning with so many wonderful people who are at their core profoundly Jewish as well as gay, I would certainly hope that we all remember the lessons of our past where the topics of discussion are issues such as the degree of responsibility of all members of the community including those of questionable gender identity (e.g. Bikkurim, Chapter Four, M. Hagiga, etc.) to fulfill their obligation of participation in all facets of Jewish life. As an Orthodox identified Jew who is part of the observant community, I would pray that we all remember foundational Jewish teachings about how we are to treat each other and not judge, for that is the domain of G-d (e.g. In the Viddui, we say, For the misdeed we have committed by judging). As a parent of four children of whom one is gay, I would plead with all to remember to love, give the benefit of the doubt, and not judge until you have reached the place of the other so that ALL OF US do not miss out on the wonderful contributions my observant, gay child is making to the creation of a better world.

    Finally, I recommend going to to learn about a very important organization, that is dedicated to the building of community and validating of the gay members of our larger Orthodox world.

  2. Mr. Cohen says:

    Ibn Ezra comment on Shemot, chapter 20,
    verse 13, quoting Rabbi Saadiah Gaon:

    [The sin of] immorality [zenut] has many levels [of severity].

    The least severe is intimate physical contact a widow or virgin.

    More severe than the preceding is:
    intimate physical contact between a husband and his wife
    when she is in a state of nidah [spiritual uncleanliness],
    because after a few days she [probably] will be permitted to him.

    More severe than the preceding is: intimate physical contact
    [between a man and] a married woman [adultery], because
    her husband may die, which would make her permitted to him.

    More severe than the preceding is: intimate physical contact
    [between a Jewish man and] a Gentile woman [for example,
    intermarriage] because she is not Jewish, but she could still
    convert [to Judaism] and become his wife [except for kohanim,
    who are forbidden by Biblical Law to marry convert women.]

    More severe than the preceding is: homosexuality,
    which is never permitted under any circumstances.

    More severe than the preceding is: [intimate physical contact
    with] a different [non-human] species, for example, if a man
    would commit intimate physical contact with an animal [bestiality].

    Rabbi Saadiah Gaon was born in Egypt in year 882 CE and
    died in Baghdad in year 942 CE. He descended from a famous
    Rabbi of the Talmud: Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa.
    At age 20 he completed his first great work, a Hebrew dictionary.
    He wrote an Arabic translation of the Torah
    and works of Jewish Law and philosophy.

  3. Mr. Cohen says:

    Rabbi Steven Pruzansky of Congregation
    Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, New Jersey:

    “…the [ancient] Greeks, against whom the Maccabees
    fought and prevailed, were avid supporters of and indulgers
    in homosexuality. It was just one of the immoral practices
    of the Hellenists that the faithful Jews found so repugnant,
    and therefore went to war in order to purge the land of it.”


  4. A Thinking Talmid who cares about the Jewish People says:

    “When individuals are pressured, by their community, to treat core elements of their identity as a shameful secret, the circle of suffering expands, claiming new victims.”

    Forgive me but I am not understanding how your post brings “quantitative support” to this claim.

    Your post claims that the percent of the population that is homosexual remains constant from state to state despite the state culture enabling or inhibiting individuals to be open about their sexual orientations. This does not demonstrate being open about sexual orientations is good for mental health.

    You further claim that the New York Time article provides “quantitative support to the assertion of the Statement of Principles that encouraging individuals to be open about their identity and orientation [b]is a positive step for Orthodoxy[/b].”

    I fail to see this as well. Maybe Orthodoxy still benefits from people not being open about their sexual orientations? Even if being open was beneficial for mental health, it is possible Orthodoxy has a greater net gain by having individuals remain private.

    • Rabbi David Wolkenfeld says:

      Thank you for your comment. There are two points that the article raises that Orthodox Jews should consider:
      – Culture does not seem to impact the occurrence of homosexuality in a population, although it does impact the occurrence of open expressions of homosexuality.
      – There are many American women who fear that their husbands are gay. In populations with many closeted gay men, the circle of suffering extends to (among others) women who unknowingly marry gay men.

      • A Thinking Talmid who cares about the Jewish People says:

        Rabbi Wolkenfeld,

        Thank you for your response. I am not opposed to considering these points.

        My only issue was that you claimed the article provided “quantitative support” and I argued this was far from the case. I suspect you agree.

        Unfortunately, many claims, from both the right and the left, are imprecise and lack rigor. Such unfounded claims do a disservice to everyone.

  5. Mr. Cohen says:

    Sefer Igros Moshe, Orach Chaim, volume 4, siman 115:
    Responsa for He Who Stumbled with Homosexuality, G_d Forbid
    DATE: First day of Rosh Chodesh Adar Rishon, year taf shin lamed vav
    TRANSLATED DATE: 1976 CE, February 2

    First, know the severity of the sin, that [the man who does] it is liable to death by stoning [skilah] and cutting off of the soul [karet]. It is called an abomination; it is one of the most disgusting and depraved of all sins. Even the Gentiles [literally, Sons of Noah] are command this [prohibition]. This will help you withstand the temptation [literally, evil inclination, Yetzer HaRa].

    Second, this is not a natural desire; it is a perversion. The normal desire for procreation was created to ensure the [continued] existence of the world. But this is not included. It exists only because of the desire to transgress the prohibition, which is a form of rebellious sin. A normal sinner will [attempt to] excuse himself with the claim that he was influenced by his temptation [literally, evil inclination, Yetzer HaRa].

    He will not be exonerated, because he could have overcome his temptation, as we see with Yosef HaTzadik [Bereishit / Genesis, chapter 39]. For this sin, however, the sinner will not even have that excuse. This realization will help a person withstand the ordeal.

    You believe in G_d and in all of the 13 Principles of Faith, and in the whole Torah, so these additional thoughts will help you remain firm.

    The [Bible] verse [pasuk] says in parshat Haazinu: “With abominations they anger Him,” and Rashi comments [on Devarim, chapter 32, verse 16:]: “This refers to homosexuality.” We thus see that these sins are done to anger G_d.

    Third, consider the shame [ganai] of all decent people. Even normal sinners consider these sinners repulsive. Even the other participant [HaRasha HaSheni, השני הרשע] involved in this wicked act [homosexuality], considers the first one degraded [mezalzel]. The Talmud [tractate Sanhedrin, page 29A] teaches that false witnesses are worthless even in the eyes of those who hire them. This concept can be used to persuade the sinner away from sin. Since this helps to overcome monetary temptations, it will surely help in overcoming the temptation for this detestable, wicked sin.

    This is not only a most severe sin against the Torah, it is also against all of the basic concepts of society, and the person who does it becomes lowly and disgraced [or despised] to the ultimate degree, and it is a great embarrassment [Ganai HaYotair Gadol] for the person [who commits it] and for his entire family.

    MICROBIOGRAPHY: Rabbi Moshe Feinstein ZTL was born in 1895 CE in Eastern Europe and died in 1986 CE in New York City. During the final three decades of his life (approximately), most Orthodox Jews around the world accepted him as their highest living authority for question of Torah law. He claimed to have never harmed even one human being, even one time, in his entire adult life; that claim was probably true.

    • Rabbi David Wolkenfeld says:

      Important source. Rav Moshe zt’l is one of the people I most admire. I think, however, that this teshuvah, understandable in 1976, would not be written today. I don’t know of any Orthodox rabbi who would still claim that homosexual desires are fictitious. We know more about human sexuality and its diversity than did Rav Moshe zt’l nearly two generations ago.

      • If it wouldn’t be written like that today it’s because society has degenerated to the point that perverted behaviour isn’t considered unusual but is actually fashionable. Hardly a ringing endorsement.

  6. Mr. Cohen says:

    Shaar HaGilgulim, Introduction [hakdamah] chapter 22:
    “He who has sexual intercourse with a man,
    he will be reincarnated as a rabbit or hare…”

    Arizal was Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, born 1534 CE, died 1572 CE.

    שער הגלגולים – הקדמה כב
    הבא על הזכר, יתגלגל בשפן או בארנבת

  7. Mr. Cohen says:

    Sefer HaMidot, chapter Niuf (part 2), paragraph 8:
    It is forbidden to judge favorably [lilmode zechut] he who commits homosexuality.

    Rabbi Nachman of Breslov was born in 1772 CE and died in 1810 CE.

  8. Mr. Cohen says:

    Sifra commentary on Parshat Acharei Mote, parashta 8, paragraph 8:
    What did they [the Gentiles of Egypt and Canaan] do?
    A man would marry a man, and a woman would marry a woman.
    A man would marry both a woman and her daughter.
    A woman would marry two [men at the same time].
    Therefore, [the Torah] says: “…AND YOU MAY NOT
    FOLLOW THEIR STATUES.” (Vayikra, chapter 18, verse 3).

    Sifra is also known as Torat Kohanim.
    Rambam attributes Sifra to Rab, who was active around year 220 CE.
    Malbim attributes Sifra to Rabbi Chiya, also active around year 220 CE.

  9. Mr. Cohen says:

    Shulchan Aruch, Chelek Yoreh Deah, Siman 252, Sif 8:

    We [must] redeem a [captive] woman before a [captive] man [when it is not possible to redeem them both]. But in a place where they are accustomed to commit homosexuality, we must redeem the man [from captivity] first.

    MICROBIOGRAPHY: The Shulchan Aruch was written by Rabbi Yosef Caro, who lived from 1488 to 1575. He was forced to flee Spain at the time of the expulsion (or inquisition), eventually settling in the city of Tzfat, Israel where he was immediately appointed to a position of great importance.
    The introductory section of Sefer Charedim refers to refers to Rabbi Yosef Caro [קארו] as Gadol HaDor [the greatest Rabbi alive at that time].

  10. Mr. Cohen says:

    Shulchan Aruch, chelek Eben HaEzer, Siman 24, paragraph 1:

    Jewish men are not suspected of homosexuality or bestiality; therefore, it is not forbidden [for Jewish men] to be together alone with them. But if he [a Jewish man] distances himself from being together alone with males and beasts, [then] behold, this is praiseworthy. And the greatest wise men would stay away from a beast, to avoid being together alone with it [literally, with her].

    In these generations, when immoral people have become numerous, there is [reason to avoid] being together alone with a male.

    MICROBIOGRAPHY: The Shulchan Aruch was written by Rabbi Yosef Caro, who lived from 1488 to 1575. He was forced to flee Spain at the time of the expulsion (or inquisition), eventually settling in the city of Tzfat, Israel where he was immediately appointed to a position of great importance.
    The introductory section of Sefer Charedim refers to refers to Rabbi Yosef Caro [קארו] as Gadol HaDor [the greatest Rabbi alive at that time].

  11. Mr. Cohen says:

    Rambam, Yad HaChazakah, Yemenite manuscript version
    of Hilchot Issurei Biah, chapter 22, paragraph 5:

    It is forbidden [literally, we do not] hand over a Jewish child to a Gentile, so he can teach [the child] a book or profession, because all of them are suspected of homosexuality.

  12. Mr. Cohen says:

    Sefer Charedim, chapter 63, page 219 of menukad edition:

    He who committed homosexuality, after he abandons his sin,
    [he] must immerse [in a kosher mikvah] and fast 233 times…

    And every morning and evening of the fasts, he should recite
    these Biblical verses: Lamentations, chapter 3, verse 20
    and Psalms chapter 31, verse 23…

    And after all these, he should be whipped and wear sackcloth
    and place dust on himself and weep more bitterly than someone
    whose only child died and lies before him…

    Also, the angels that are appointed to watch over that person,
    [they] distance themselves from him…

    Rabbi Eleazar ben Moshe Azkari (or Ezkari) was a popular
    preacher who lived in Safed (Israel) in the 1500s CE.
    His Sefer Charedim was published in Venice
    in 1601 CE, a year after his death.
    Several well-known piyutim (Jewish hymns)
    are attributed to him, including Yedid Nefesh.

  13. Allen Roth says:

    Sexual relations between men is not singled out in the Torah. The word “to-e-va,” usually translated as “abomination,” is applied to many other actions that are condemned in the Pentateuch, including some heterosexual acts. So, homosexual behavior is not unique in any way in a scale of prohibitions. Secondly, what exactly is prohibited–sexually–is a very complex question, but it is not clear from the Biblical text that every form of sexual relations is included. Third, the context in Leviticus may indicate that the passage refers to homosexual ritual prostitution, since both homosexual and heterosexual ritual prostitution were common in Canaanite cults, and the Torah prohibited all such acts (the words “qa-desh” and “q’-de-sha” are male and female ritual prostitutes). They were so common, and so indulged in by many Israelites, that Scripture had to repeat the prohibitions many times. Which brings me to my last point.
    From the texts of Leviticus through II Kings, and further through the Minor Prophets, it is apparent that the Israelites were a very wayward people, when it came to compliance with the word of God (I will not use the Tetragrammaton here, in deference to some of your sensibilities). The attractions of the Canaanite religions, rituals and cults were many. And despite the ostensible miracles performed by such as Samson, Elijah, and other prophets, the people continually ignored God’s laws. No one is perfect; and love between men is not by any means a singularly offensive act in the Torah. Adultery, spousal abuse, and many other offenses are prohibited, but nevertheless occur. I am not saying that they should be permitted, but rather that the singular level of opprobrium and hatred visited upon gay people is wholly unfounded, at least from the words of the Bible. I will further suggest that the source of most strongly negative attitudes to gay people in Orthodox Judaism is not the one or two verses in the Torah, which do not receive any especial emphasis among the hundreds of proscribed acts, but rather, the Christian, Muslim and Statist condemnation and persecution of gay people, which has suffused every culture in which we Jews have lived. You may find it distasteful to consider that you may, in effect, be drawing your beliefs from those of other religions and cultures around you, rather than from our traditions and sacred writings alone. Consider and re-think your attitudes and their possible sources: If we were living in a society where both gay and straight sex were treated equally, it is highly unlikely that such obsessive attention and emphasis would be placed on this one particular Biblical offense.

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