The Gay Child in My Daughter’s First Grade Class

February 18, 2016

by Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold

It was a parenting moment that came much sooner than I thought it would. My six year-old looked over at me at the dinner table and told me that her teacher had said that a boy “can’t marry a boy, and a girl can’t marry a girl.”

I paused, chewing.

“Well, what do you think?,” I asked her.

“Well, I know that isn’t true.”

She knows that isn’t true because we have had gay couples at our Shabbat table. She knows it isn’t true because she has a friend with two moms, and because her little sister has a boy in her class with two dads. She knows that sometimes boys marry boys. She knows that gay people exist. This is 2016.

I responded by reminding her (and my two- and four-year-old, who were also at the table) what I’ve told my kids many times: It’s true that MOST of the time, a boy marries and girl, and a girl marries a boy. But SOMEtimes, it does happen that a boy marries a boy and a girl marries a girl. (I think that “married” is the only word they have for attraction and romance, not to mention domestic partnership.)

I told her that it made me sad that her Morah said that it doesn’t happen. It made me sad for the people who are gay. This is how Hashem made them, and this Morah is pretending they do not exist. What I didn’t tell her, is that I was most sad for the gay child in her class. Because chances are that yes, even in her Orthodox day school, there is a child, or children, who will later discover (or might already know) that they are gay. Think what it does to these children to hear their Morah deny their existence.

My daughter knew her teacher wasn’t right, not only because of the gay people in her life. She also had read, many times, our books by Todd Parr, such as The Family Book, which states unequivocally, “Some families have two moms; some families have two dads,” along with “Some families look like each other; some families look like their pets.” Also true.

My daughter had also recently read a book called And Tango Makes Three, a true story about penguins in Central Park Zoo. Two boy penguins are not interested in the girl penguins, but are interested in each other and become companions. They are sad when they discover that they do not have an egg in their nest, like all the other penguins. The zookeeper finds an extra egg that had no penguin to take care of it, and Tango is born, making their happy union into a family. My daughter got the message, that if it’s biologically true for penguins, it could also be biologically true for humans.

These books were baby gifts from a dear long-time friend of my husband’s, who happens to be gay. I have to admit that, while I was content to read the Todd Parr books to my kids right away, I hid away And Tango Makes Three for many years – six years to be exact. I had only just pulled it off the top shelf and left it around for my first grader to read. It was not because my children weren’t ready for the book, but because I wasn’t ready for it. I wasn’t ready for what my children’s questions might be. I wasn’t sure of my own feelings about homosexulaity in the Orthodox community. I wasn’t sure how I would respond, how I would engage with my children’s curiosity.

What I’ve learned, as a parent and as an educator, is that many of these conversations can be quite simple. Especially with young kids, and even with older ones, the most important message is simply that gay people are here. They are all around us, they are among us, they might even be us. They are Jewish and not, Orthodox and not, married and not, with children and not. A simple dinner conversation, spoken in soft tones, and in six-year-old language, can make it clear to children that gay people are here, and that Hashem made them that way.

Thankfully the Orthodox community is beginning to address the reality that LGBTQ individuals are among us. But beyond that, I write this piece in order to model what it might look like to have conversations with our children about complex and difficult situations. LGBTQ issues are only one of many tough subjects that may arise around the dinner table. Be ready for other important conversations, too. Be ready to explain that we don’t drive on Shabbat while other Jews do, without demonizing or disenfranchising those other Jews, and without diminishing our deeply-held value of halacha. My daughter recently said that all Jewish girls wear skirts that cover the knee. I needed to address the fact that even though it is what we do in our own family, there are Jews who dress differently. Complex conversations like these also happen outside the Jewish realm, of course. We need to discuss racism in a way that children can understand, explaining that there have been times in history when people with a different skin color were treated differently, terribly, were even enslaved, and this is wrong. Somehow, we are well prepared with robust information for our children about why they shouldn’t talk to strangers and why it’s important that they work hard in school. Let’s also be ready to converse with them about the complexities of life.

The conversation I had with my children about homosexuality was not complicated. I didn’t quote psukim from the Torah, or enter into halachic discourse. There will be time for that. Parents of adolescents will need to take a more nuanced approach. However, if parents speak openly and honestly about these complex topics when children are young, then the conversations when they are older become less fraught, more open and honest.

And then there’s my daughter’s teacher. I think about what that teacher might have responded. Had she been adequately prepared and trained for this kind of question, she could have spoken about the fact that each person is created b’tzelem Elokim, in God’s image. She could have been honest about the fact that gay marriage is legal in Canada, and has been for over a decade. She might have even been able to voice her own discomfort (or the halachic difficulties) with gay marriage, while also acknowledging that being gay is nothing to be ashamed of. But the teacher was clearly caught off guard, and was not prepared to offer any answer, hence she simply brushed the question aside.

I was inspired by this video from an Eshel retreat. I hope that someday, every LGBTQ Orthodox young person can say something like this: “I’m still a Bais Yaakov girl; I just happen to be queer.” I think about that gay child in my daughter’s class. Will that child find a safe space to be both Orthodox and gay? Will he need to bifurcate his identity, thinking that he cannot be both frum and homosexual? He will, no doubt, face many challenges. But let him at least be recognized, rather than invisible.

Let us urge our day schools to equip our children’s teachers with the skills and sensitivity needed to respond to their questions. Let us open the door for these conversations with our children while they are young, although it is never too late to start. Let us take responsibility for making our community open and honest about the fact that gay people are among us. Do it for the gay child in your child’s class… who could even be your own.

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Transgender Orthodox Jews

August 6, 2015

by Rabbi Dr. Zev Farber

 

An analysis of the challenges–both halakhic and social–faced by transgender individuals in the Orthodox Jewish world, with some suggested resolutions. 

 

INTRODUCTION – THE COMPLEX NATURE OF GENDER

One of the most stable identity markers for most people is their gender. We live in a world that divides itself neatly into categories of “male” and “female.” This is true of our language, our bathrooms, our sports teams, etc. For many of us, this reality is perfectly comfortable and intuitive. For those who feel that they were born the wrong sex or who don’t feel comfortable with either of the most common gender identities,[1] this dichotomy can feel isolating.

As challenging as being transgender already is in the larger world, Orthodox Judaism poses some unique challenges. In this essay, I will outline some of these challenges and suggest ways of ameliorating or solving the problems. My goal is to stimulate thought about how to integrate transgender Jews who wish to be part of the Orthodox world, into our shuls and our communities in as seamless a manner as possible.[2]

Read the rest of this entry »


Obama’s Advocacy of Gay Marriage: An Alternative Orthodox Response – by Rabbi Zev Farber

May 22, 2012

In an interview with ABC News last week, President Barack Obama said, “I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.” Since then all hell has broken loose. In the Orthodox Jewish community alone, three different organizations reacted publicly to the president’s announcement. Agudath Israel announced that they are “staunch in their opposition to redefining marriage,” although they admitted that the president, like everyone else, has a right to their opinion.[1] The Orthodox Union expressed disappointment in Obama’s statement, stating that they “oppose any effort to change the definition of marriage to include same sex unions.”

The most strident condemnation came from the National Council of Young Israel which expressed “deep disappointment” in the president’s statement, writing that they are “diametrically opposed to same gender marriage, which is a concept that is antithetical to the religious principles that we live by.” The NCYI ended their statement with the following: “As firm believers that marriage is a sacred bond between a man and a woman, we simply cannot accept a newfound social position that alters the value, definition, and sanctity of marriage as set forth in the Torah, which has guided us for thousands of years.”

Here is where I see the problem. Certainly the Torah has guided observant Jews for thousands of years. Nevertheless, the United States of America and its president are not bound to legislate in accordance with the Torah. Religious Jews are just one group in the plethora of religious communities in the United States and we can hardly condemn the president for not taking Torah law into account.

Taking a step back, it seems to me that—with all due respect to the various institutions quoted above—all of these statements are missing the boat. The most incisive analysis published on this issue thus far, from the Orthodox community at least, has been Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s piece in the Huffington Post, “The greatest threat to the future of the American family is not gay marriage but rather divorce.” I would add that this threat extends to “accidental families” as well, wherein the couple does not remain together, irrespective of whether they were ever married.

In contrast, same-sex marriages are of interest to a certain subset of the population, and do not affect the lives of heterosexuals who wish to marry their opposite-sex partners. The existence or legality of gay marriage should not be an issue for the Orthodox Jewish community, unless there is a fear that Orthodox rabbis would be forced to perform such weddings or that Orthodox synagogues would be required to treat such couples as “married.” However, if the NCYI is concerned about this, they should have raised this in their statement as the OU did:

“…we appreciate President Obama’s statement today acknowledging that in states where same sex relationships are legally recognized, such laws must carefully address and protect the religious liberties of dissenting individuals and institutions, and the President’s reported reference to the New York State law (on whose strong religious liberty provisions the OU worked) as a model for how such protections must be in place.”

This concern, at least, makes sense and falls under the purview of an Orthodox Jewish organization aiming to protect its own constituency. What is not under the purview of Orthodox Jewish institutions, or the institutions of any other religious group, is to demand that America enact legislation that is specifically in line with its own religious tenets. To paraphrase a quip made by a colleague, I assume the NCYI would not be shocked to learn that in addition to supporting gay marriage, President Obama also does not keep Kosher and drives on Shabbat.

Although I have no problem with all fifty states permitting gay marriage, Boteach makes an alternative suggestion that is worth considering. He argues that perhaps the government should leave the marriage business altogether and only do civil unions. That way any couple, homosexual or heterosexual, will receive the same civil status and legal recognition, and each can “consecrate” their union in a manner meaningful and acceptable to their own faith communities.

In truth, the implied claim that the legal status of a married couple in America carries some “religious weight” in the Orthodox community is disingenuous. The only reason couples married in America are considered married according to halakha is because they perform a religious Jewish ceremony. If they were married in a civil ceremony instead, then according to the vast majority of halakhic authorities (Rav Henkin being the notable exception) they would not be considered married according to halakha.

Furthermore, if a Jewishly married couple were to get only a civil divorce, there is no halakhic authority that I am aware of that would consider them divorced according to Jewish law. None. So in what way does the Orthodox community actually take the legal status conferred on a couple as binding in a religious sense? This is why it is hard for me to understand the extreme, almost visceral, reaction of much of the Orthodox leadership.

Two further points need to be made. First, as I wrote in a previous post, even in the Orthodox world-view, where homosexual congress is considered forbidden, there needs to be sensitivity to the fact that homosexuals—whether for genetic, hormonal, or psychological reasons—experience the same need for love and intimate companionship that heterosexuals experience. Homosexual men and women looking to marry are simply trying to establish a life of love and intimacy in a familial context in the same way that heterosexual couples that marry and have children do. Although the OU’s statement does mention that they condemn discrimination, overall this voice of concern and empathy for homosexuals is sadly lacking in the current discourse. To quote Boteach again: “Who does it bother to have gay couples granted the decency to visit each other in hospital during serious illness, make end-of-life decisions and receive tax benefits as a couple?”

Second, considering the current erosion of the stable family unit and its replacement either with rampant divorce or non-committed relationships, homosexual couples who want to form committed relationships are hardly the enemy. In fact, this type of relationship is closest in character to the choice made by married heterosexual couples in religious communities like our own. Contrary to the opinion of some fringe groups, people who feel they are attracted only to members of their own gender will continue to feel this way throughout their lives. Considering this fact, as a religious community deeply concerned about the strength of American society, whose goals are to solidify family values, shouldn’t the gay couples who wish to marry and bring up children be seen as our allies, not our adversaries?


[1] Everyone else except for Marc Stanley, apparently, whose statement the Agudah labels “outrageous, offensive, and wrong.”


Homosexuals in the Orthodox Community -by Rabbi Zev Farber

January 11, 2012

Rabbi Zev Farber was ordained (yoreh yoreh and yadin yadin) by YCT Rabbinical School. He is the founder of AITZIM (Atlanta Institute of Torah and Zionism) – an adult education initiative. Rabbi Farber serves on the board of the International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF) and is the coordinator of their Vaad Giyyur. He is also a PhD candidate at Emory University’s Graduate Division of Religion

 

Introduction

Few social issues facing the Orthodox Jewish community are as emotionally charged as that of the place of homosexuals, especially the gnawing question of the place of homosexual couples and families in the synagogue and larger community.  Many rabbis are at a loss as to what to suggest to a gay Orthodox Jew who seeks guidance.

I once suggested the following thought experiment to a colleague: “If, for some reason, it became clear that the Torah forbade you to ever get married or to ever have any satisfying intimate relationship, what would you do?” My own reaction to this question is: although part of me hopes I would be able to follow the dictates of the Torah, I have strong doubts about the possibility of success, and I trust that my friends and colleagues would be supportive of me either way.

 

Not a Moral Issue

Unfortunately, much of the rhetoric traditionally surrounding homosexuality seems to derive from a confusion of categories. For the believing Orthodox Jew, homosexual congress is a religious offense, akin to eating shrimp or driving on the Sabbath. It is not a moral offense, akin to assaulting women or cheating in business. Much of the rhetoric around homosexuality seems to center on moral discourse, and I feel this is a serious mistake.

Although polemics surrounding homosexuality have taken various forms over the years, the driving force behind the current polemic is the changing view of homosexuality and its causes. In the past, the main claims against homosexuality were that the behavior was “deviant” and the act “unnatural.” The latter claim is inherently false, since the phenomenon in fact occurs in nature. The claim that the behavior is deviant is true in the sense that, statistically speaking, it deviates from the norm, but saying that someone has a minority sexual disposition is hardly in itself a moral critique.

Difference breeds fear, especially when that difference is hard to understand. It is difficult for many heterosexuals to imagine that it could be possible for a person to lack any attraction to members of the opposite sex. It is even more difficult for a heterosexual to picture being attracted to members of his or her own sex. This may be one reason why, for centuries, a contemptuous, even belligerent, attitude towards homosexuals was the norm.

An excellent, if sad, example of this is a letter by R. Moshe Feinstein written in 1976 (Iggrot Moshe OH 4:115), where he treats homosexual activity like any other choice. The letter is addressed to a young homosexual man asking R. Feinstein for some words of advice to help him control his urges. R. Feinstein endeavored to do so, informing him that there really is no such thing as homosexual desire. Nature dictates, R. Feinstein wrote, that people are attracted to members of the opposite sex and not to members of their own sex. Therefore, the only explanation for homosexual behavior was as an expression of rebellion against God. If one could only get one’s anger against God under control, one could live a “normal” heterosexual life.  Nowadays we understand that this is not an accurate portrayal of homosexual desire, but R. Feinstein’s views were typical of his day and he could hardly have thought differently.

 

The Declaration and the Statement

The difference between the nature of the discourse in the seventies and the contemporary discourse is clearly demonstrated in the recent Declaration drafted by the right and center-right Orthodox communities and signed by over 150 rabbis, lay leaders and mental health professionals from those communities (www.torahdec.org).

The declaration inspired mixed feelings in me. After reaffirming the forbidden nature of homosexual congress, the Declaration states unequivocally that homosexuality is a curable psychological – not genetic, not hormonal – disorder. It instructs the Orthodox community to treat homosexuals with kindness while guiding them towards reparative therapy.

Partly, I was relieved. The Declaration used phrases like “love, support and encouragement” as a description for how Orthodox people should feel about the homosexuals in their communities. That is a far cry from the bellicose homophobia that many have come to expect from fundamentalist religious groups.

On the other hand, I was also very disturbed. The Declaration advocates strongly for reparative or conversion therapy, a pseudoscientific and medically discredited practice that many professionals consider dangerous; the American Psychological Association goes so far as to say that any therapist who employs reparative therapy is in violation of the Hippocratic Oath.

The Declaration further argues that homosexuality must be both psychological and curable, since God could not be so cruel as to create people with homosexual urges and make it forbidden to act upon them – a theologically dubious argument to say the least. I would venture to say that anyone who is or who knows someone suffering from any of the countless debilitating life-long diseases would be taken aback by the claim that God would never create a person with a biological makeup that could ruin his or her life.

The Declaration seems to be a reaction to the “Statement of Principles” (statementofprinciplesnya.blogspot.com) regarding homosexuality signed by 200 center and left-leaning Orthodox rabbis and community leaders the year before. Oddly enough, the left wing’s Statement of Principles, although considerably more sophisticated and nuanced than the recent Declaration, has much in common with it.

The Statement of Principles, like the Declaration, reaffirms the forbidden nature of homosexual congress. Unlike the Declaration, it allows that homosexuality is genetically and/or hormonally determined and admits that reparative therapy may be bogus and even harmful. The Statement, like the Declaration, urges the Orthodox community to treat homosexuals with love and respect. On the other hand, the Statement requires gay Orthodox Jews to be celibate. Although it urges understanding towards the non-celibate, the Statement suggests that if these homosexual Jews are open about their lifestyle – and the Statement affirms their right to be open about this – it would be the prerogative of an Orthodox synagogue or community not to accept them or give them any honors.

Although I appreciate the attempt by both groups to make homosexuals feel more welcome in our community and to tone down belligerent homophobia, both documents, in my view, fall short. Ever since I declined to sign the Statement – a document whose purpose I am strongly sympathetic with and which was crafted and signed by many close friends and mentors – I have given much thought to the Orthodox world’s relationship to homosexual Jews, sexually active and celibate alike, and what needs to be “stated” or “declared” about them.

 

The Need for Understanding and the Challenge of Empathy

For homosexual Jews wishing to live an Orthodox Jewish life and integrate into the Orthodox community, much empathy on the part of the heterosexual Orthodox community is required, especially from the rabbis. The signers of both the Declaration and the Statement are predominantly, perhaps entirely, heterosexuals. Many are married with families, as am I. Our families get together with other families for Shabbat meals and celebrate lifecycle events in the synagogue. Many of us receive communal approval for being married and for being good spouses. We have loving and fulfilling intimate relationships at home. Life is rather easy for us.

It is challenging for heterosexual Orthodox Jews to genuinely internalize the dissonance inherent in the psychological world of gay Orthodox Jews. Like all Orthodox Jews committed to a life of Torah and Jewish observance, Orthodox Jewish gay men and women want to participate fully in their communities. They want to come to synagogue and have Shabbat meals with their friends. And yet, the central text of their community – a text they love and venerate – forbids one of their most fundamental impulses, offering no viable alternative.

 

Asking the Impossible

In the documentary Trembling before God, R. Nathan Cardozo boldly states: “It is not possible for the Torah to come and ask a person to do something that he is not able to do. Theoretically speaking, it would be better for the homosexual to live a life of celibacy. I just would argue one thing – it’s completely impossible. It doesn’t work. The human force of sexuality is so big that it can’t be done.”

What we are asking of the homosexual Orthodox community is impossible. It is simply unrealistic to ask or expect normal adults to remain celibate and give up on the emotionally fulfilling and vital experience of intimate partnership that heterosexual men and women take for granted.

 

Oness Rahmana Patrei

My own approach to the matter is that the Orthodox community should adopt the stance of “oness rahmana patrei” – The Merciful One overlooks what is out of a person’s control. This was first suggested by R. Norman Lamm in the 1974 Encyclopedia Judaica Yearbook and I believe that this principle should serve as a basis for formulating an Open Orthodox response to the many challenges of accepting and integrating homosexuals into our community.

 

Brief Halakhic Analysis

The principle of oness rahmana patrei originates in a case where the deed in question was physically out of the person’s control. Nevertheless, the Talmud applies it to a case where a person worships idols to save his life (b. Avodah Zarah 54a). Many medieval commentaries ask why such a case should be considered oness, since a person can always accept death rather than violate Jewish law in this way. One answer to this question has been that a person who violates a Torah rule to save his or her life is emotionally compelled to do so and that this compulsion is a form of oness. I would argue that gay Orthodox Jews, earnestly seeking the same kind of emotionally satisfying intimate relationship taken for granted by heterosexual Jews, are similarly emotionally compelled.[1]

Oness rahmana patrei has been applied over the years to a number of different cases in halakha, from permission not to move to Israel out of fear that the trip would be dangerous (Noda bi-Yehuda Tanina, EH 102), to a woman refusing to be intimate with her husband because she finds him repulsive (Tosafot Rid, Ketubot 64; R. Avraham Isaac Kook in Ezrat Kohen 55). Two precedents in particular serve as important analogies.

The first is the fact that many halakhic authorities treat suicide as an act of oness, committed under duress and consequently out of the person’s control (see, for example Arukh ha-Shulhan YD 345:5; Kol Bo al Aveilut pp. 318-321). This sensitive halakhic approach allows the family to mourn the loss of their relative without having to sully his or her memory.

More analogous to the situation of the homosexual is the case recorded in the Talmud (b. Gittin 38a) of a woman who was a partial slave, forbidden to marry either another slave or a free man. Without a religiously acceptable outlet, the woman became exceedingly promiscuous with the local men, and the rabbis forced her master to free her fully so that she could marry. In discussing this case, R. Meshulam Roth (Qol Mevasser 1:25) observes that the woman’s hopeless situation was emotionally intolerable to her, and that her behavior in this case should be considered one of oness. If anything, the situation of Orthodox homosexual Jews who wish to follow halakha is even more intolerable. If they keep this halakha, they have no hope for a loving intimate partnership, ever.

 

A Different Kind of Oness

One of the chief arguments put forth against the oness approach, since R. Lamm first suggested it forty years ago, has been that most cases of oness are cases of an action taken under duress at a specific point in time. This would not apply to homosexuals who, like heterosexuals, can certainly control their urges at any given moment, and should be expected to do so. Nevertheless, I believe this is a false comparison.

Urges are controlled by the calming factor of knowing there is an alternative outlet. Unlike heterosexuals, gay Orthodox Jews have no halakhically acceptable outlet for the vital human need for intimate partnership, and never will. This is the key difference between this case of oness and most other cases. One cannot view celibacy as moment by moment abstinence. The oness derives from the cumulative weight of the totality of the moments of a person’s life, an absolutely crushing weight in this case.

Psychologically, gay Orthodox Jews are faced with one of two options: either be sexually active and fragment this transgression from their conscious minds, or be celibate and live with the knowledge that they will never experience a real intimate relationship. I firmly believe that the latter is not really a livable option for most adults, but a debilitating and life-crushing prospect. Advocating for it is an exercise in futility.

In reality, gay Orthodox Jews who are advised or pressured to be celibate either ignore the advice, hide in the “closet,” or leave Orthodoxy altogether. Worse, if the guilt or dissonance is too great, they may turn to drugs, extreme promiscuity or even suicide. This is not at all what we want to accomplish. I believe we must come to terms with the fact that, in the long run, Orthodox homosexual Jews really have no choice but to allow themselves to fulfill the intense desire for emotional and physical intimacy in the only way open to them.

 

Caveat

To be sure, calling something oness does not make the action halakhically permitted; it is not. Moreover, adopting the oness principle does not mean that halakha recognizes same sex qiddushin (Jewish marriage) – it does not. Finally, the concept of oness does not cover people with a more fluid sexuality; those who are capable of forming a satisfying intimate bond with members of the opposite sex and choose to do so with a member of their own sex cannot reasonably be called “compelled.”

However, the concept of oness does apply to that percentage of the population for whom homosexual love is the only expression of emotional intimacy and sexuality available. Consequently, it is my firm belief that the Orthodox community should accept the fact that there will be non-celibate homosexuals in our midst and we should welcome them.

 

Sociology and Policy Considerations

I would further suggest, if only for considerations of social policy and community health, that we encourage exclusivity and the forming of a loving and lasting relationship-bond as the optimal lifestyle for gay Orthodox Jews who feel they are oness and cannot be celibate (and this is the vast majority). This type of relationship is the closest in character to the choice made by married heterosexual couples in our community. Gay Orthodox couples should not be penalized for forming a committed relationship; certainly their children, natural or adopted, must not be. It is the obligation of the synagogue to think creatively and open-mindedly about how to accommodate these families, especially when it comes to celebrating the children’s semahot.

Certainly, if any homosexual Jewish man or woman feels that he or she wishes to follow the halakha and be celibate and looks to the rabbi for encouragement, the rabbi should give this person all the encouragement he or she needs. However, no Orthodox rabbi should feel duty-bound to urge homosexual Jews to be celibate. This is not a practical option for most people, and advocating this will only cause that person intense pain and guilt.

 

Conclusion

In short, there should be no social penalty in the Orthodox world for being a non-celibate homosexual Jew. Homosexual congress is not a moral violation; it is purely a violation of a religious prohibition, one that is the inevitable consequence of the person’s psychological and even biological makeup. If God overlooks the inevitable, so should we.

 

Rabbi Zev Farber, AITZIM,

Atlanta, GA

 


[1] I am, of course, aware of the position staked out by Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Issurei Biah 1:9, Sanhedrin 20:3; also Maharshal, Yam Shel Shlomo, Yebamot 6:2) that oness never applies to male sexual intercourse since “ein qishui ella le-da’at”, i.e. male arousal is always purposeful. This position is vigorously questioned and debated by a number of Rishonim and Aharonim (see: Tosafot, Yebamot 53b s.v. she-ansuhu; Ramban, Yebamot 53b; Rashba Yebamot 53b; Rosh Yebamot 6:1; Maggid Mishna, Issurei Biah 1:9; Kessef Mishna, Sanhedrin 20:3; Radbaz, Deot 4:19, R. Elchonon Wasserman, Qovetz He’arot 59:3). A full analysis of oness rahmana patrei and its application to male sexual intercourse will have to wait for a different venue.

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A religious dilemma -by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

August 25, 2011

My friend and former student Esther (not her real name) embodies all the values and qualities that are deemed praiseworthy in the Orthodox Jewish community…except for one.   She is a leader of Jewish people helping to form observant and learned communities wherever she goes.  She is smart, modest, humble, learned in Torah, observant with the punctiliousness and passion that is the Orthodox ideal, and she even grew up Orthodox, the perfect match for any Jewish man…except that she is, and has always been, only attracted to women.

Esther tried for many years to figure out what her observant Jewish life would look like.  She knew two things for sure, she was gay and she was Orthodox.  The question for her and for many Orthodox Jews who are only attracted emotionally and sexually to people of the same gender is: How should I live my life?   Should I be celibate?   Should I live with a roommate of the same gender and raise children but not tell the world in any official way that we are as loving, supportive and as one person as much as any married heterosexual couple?  Should I have a partner and be open about it and raise an Orthodox family and risk being ostracized?  The easy fixes like not being gay or not being religiously observant are usually not options for people who really are gay and who really are observant Jews.

I always knew the time would come when Esther would realize that she would not really be able to live alone her whole life.  A woman of community and family, steeped in the beauty of Jewish family values, of Shabbat (Sabbath) tables filled with rejoicing, singing, and words of torah study, and of community.   A woman who knows what the important values are and is not moved by the narishkiet (Yiddish for nonsense) that larger American society and its superficial media driven values constantly churns out to us.   Esther is a woman steeped in Orthodox Jewish family values and Torah through and through.

The time that I knew would come, has come.  She met someone she loves, someone she can create a loving, religious Jewish family with which will embody the very best of Orthodox values.   Is creating a Jewish home with another woman and raising Jewish children the best thing for Esther’s Jewish life?   I believe it is.

Esther wants to take the values that Judaism teaches about relationships, as embodied in its writings about Jewish family and weddings and in the Jewish wedding ceremony itself, and utilize them in a ceremony that will deepen and solidify the relationship with her same gender spouse that will serve as the foundation for their “bayit neeman biyisrael,” their house of faith among the Jewish people.  Instead of slinkingly living with a “roommate” she wants to publicly solidify this relationship and foundation for her new family in front of friends and community in order to encourage its longevity and strength.

The halachot (Jewish laws) of Jewish marriage pertain only to a Jewish man and a Jewish woman who are permitted to each other.  True, it is not forbidden in Judaism to ceremoniously read sections of the book of Ruth about relationships, or the Song of Songs, or to make a blessing on a cup of wine, or to offer a prayer on behalf of a bride and a bride.  On the other hand all of the paradigms of marriage in the Torah are only between men and women.

Is it the time to say our focus on drawing lines and holding ground against gays, their relationships and their marriages is wasted energy?  To say as Rabbi Shmuly Boteach recently has that we should stop focusing on gay marriage and worry about the 50% of heterosexual marriages that fail?  To acknowledge that marriage does not have to prompt a community analysis of what happens in people’s bedrooms but can just see what happens in their dining rooms and living rooms such as loving children and teaching them Judaism in a house of Jewish celebration and faith among our people?

Maybe this is the moment to stand up and say it is better for gay orthodox Jews (at least those who can not be celibate and still keep the rest of the Torah with joy) to be in monogamous relationships which are the most observant ones they can be?  To say why  assume every relationship is only judged based upon what we think might be going on in the couple’s bed room and not on the building of a traditional Jewish home?   That when it comes to heterosexual couples who may be violating things in their bedroom that are forbidden by the Torah we turn a blind eye but when it comes to gay couples whose bedroom violations may be much less, perhaps only rabbinic, that suddenly we are up in arms?

If I believe the best thing for Esther is to “marry” a woman and raise a Jewish family and I do not help facilitate that because I fear the reverberations in the Orthodox community am I a hypocrite?   On the other hand I am a Jew committed to Jewish law and tradition and same gender marriage has never been part of that, indeed has been seen as outside of it.

So what is a rabbi to do?


A Plea for True Respect for Arabs and Muslims by Rabbi Asher Lopatin

February 17, 2011

Rav Yosef, my good friend and a rabbi I respect deeply, misunderstands my motivation in holding off on a prayer for Egypt.  I certainly am frustrated with the Obama administration’s handling of the Middle East.  However, my main point is that we need to stop pandering and patronizing the Arabs and Muslims throughout the world, and actually show some respect to them.  They can face the challenges of their past just as well as Jews and Christians can: the anti-Semitic elements of their religion, which need to be re-understood just as Judaism and Christianity evolved in their understanding of the “other”; the discriminatory treatment of the Jews in Arab and Muslim lands throughout  history; the abominable attitude of the Arab leadership, trade unions and professional organizations toward the State of Israel – even in Jordan and Egypt; the leaders and mobs who pressured Great Britain not to allow Jews to enter Palestine when faced with murder and destruction in Europe – and even after the Holocaust before the rise of the State of Israel.  I respect the Arabs and Muslims, and I think they are capable of rising to the challenge of becoming an enlightened people, a part of the developed world.  Yes, they need democracy,  and that means a different attitude towards women – we in the West need to work on that as well – and toward homosexuals and other “others” in their midst.  Yes, I think the Palestinians can advance to the point where selling land to a Jew is not a capital offense, nor is a gay person forced to hide their identity.

People from developed countries throughout the world come to Israel to learn agriculture, science and to share in Israel’s rich culture.  I do expect Arabs to learn from Israel as well.  It is their loss, their sad loss, and certainly the Palestinians loss, that they have spent nearly 63 years fighting Israel instead of teaming up with Israel. The protesters in Tienanmen Square erected a model of the Statue of Liberty; they understood that America stands for freedom and liberty.  In Egypt, protesters put Jewish stars on Mubarak to show how much they hated him – how sad that they did not understand that Israel represents their ticket to freedom, democracy and a thriving, open economy, rather than the evil they need to eternally fight.

No, I am not angry, I am waiting: I am waiting for the Egyptians to rise to the challenge and to be the human beings they can be.  The prophets understood that they can be a great people.  But unless we challenge them to pursue truth, not just populism, and unless we ourselves admit to that truth, we are not respecting them and treating them as our equals.    They are God’s children just like we in the West are God’s children, and I have every expectation that I place on myself and my own religion.

I pray that we stop pandering and patronizing and start respecting our Arab and Muslims brothers in a way that allows them to enter a new era of truth and good.  When that happens, I will be the first to say a Shehechiyanu.  Until then, I pray for us to be strong, and never to compromise or ask others to compromise the values that have given us our freedom and our liberty.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin


Are We Torah True? -By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

August 8, 2010

In a recent blog post http://blog.rabbijason.com/2010/08/yes-orthodox-judaism-changes-too.html Rabbi Jason Miller argues that orthodoxy can not legitimately claim it is Torah true any more than Conservative or Reform Judaism can, since things in Orthodoxy also change, only slower.  He points to the recent statement by 150 orthodox rabbis calling for more understanding for homosexuals in the orthodox community: http://www.tabletmag.com/news-and-politics/13912/unorthodox-position , the expansion of women’s leadership roles in Shirah Chadasha type minyanim, Rabbi Avi Weiss’ recent decision to have a woman lead Kabbalat Shabbat in a side minyan at HIR, and the new Yeshivat Maharat which will train Orthodox women for clergy positions.

Rabbi Miller writes, “A quarter century after the Conservatives opened its seminary to women, the more progressive Orthodox Jews in Centrist Orthodoxy are now debating the leadership roles of women in the synagogue. It was only a matter of time…The Judaism of 2010, in any of the denominations, looks different than the Judaism of past centuries. That’s because the times change and the Jewish religion changes too, whether people like it or not….Orthodox Judaism does not have a monopoly on “Torah true Judaism.” If Judaism is truly going to be true to the Torah, then we must all embrace the Torah’s dictum that says the Torah does not reside in the heavens. It belongs to humanity and it is up to us to see that it remains vibrant and evolves.”

Perhaps though halachik change or the lack thereof alone is not what determines how true to the Torah one’s Judaism is.  Perhaps it is a group’s shmirat hamitzvot, keeping of all the mitzvoth, and passionate commitment to torah study and Torah values that determines its Torah true-ness.  If this is so then a movement which makes halachik decisions that are based on strong halachic precedent, even if these changes diverge from or expand current traditions, is still Torah true if its observance of mitzvot is total.

On the other hand if a group says it is committed to halacha but does not observe it as part of its culture it is not Torah true.  Such might be the case, for instance, for the bulk of Conservative Jews today, who do not keep shabbat, kashrut or taharat hamishpacha, or indeed for some parts of the Charedi world whom though they may keep with much passion the mitzvoth between humans and God, might not keep with the same care the mitzvoth between human beings, required even toward those outside their community.  I submit that it is not one’s lack of halachic chiddush that makes one Torah true, but how one observes the rest of Judaism along with the said halachic changes that determines one Torah true-ness.

An Orthodox community that, based on gemaras and their understanding of the Shulchan Aruch’s (Code of Jewish Law) definition of Kavod Hatzibur (honor to the congregation-the reason for not allowing women’s aliyot), allows women to lead Kabbalat Shabbat, and with that keeps with passion all the mitzvoth, is indeed Torah true in every sense of the word.