Torah and Historical Proof: Guest Post by Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot

July 25, 2013

Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot is on the Judaic studies faculty of the SAR High School in NYC. He is the chair of the Bible and Jewish Thought Departments at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School and the rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, NJ. He is the author of hundreds of articles in Jewish studies and most recently published a volume of studies on Tanakh entitled Mikra and Meaning (Maggid/Koren, 2012). He is a member of the RCA and an officer of the IRF as well as on the steering committee of the Orthodox Forum sponsored by Yeshiva University.

 

Disclaimer: This essay is not an exhaustive treatment of the topic but simply some reflections in light of the ongoing discussions that have arisen both here and in Israel in the last number of years in Modern-Orthodox and Dati –Leumi circles, including the most recent discussions on the blogosphere. It examines certain issues and leaves others open for more discussion.

  1. As ma’aminim b’nei ma’aminim in the Divine origin of the Torah, a question that confronts us, especially in the modern period, with the rise of academic Bible studies and the related field of archeology of the ancient near east,  is the challenge to the historicity of various events, both central and peripheral to the Torah’s narrative. This often expresses itself around key questions as to: Did the Flood “really” happen as described in the Bible? Did the Avot “really” exist?  Do we have “evidence” of a mass Exodus from Egypt or the revelation at Sinai?

Many essays and books have been authored about this topic within both academic and religious circles in the last twenty five years. This has also led to deep debates within the world of the academy itself between “minimalists” who basically reject all the accounts of the Torah as lacking in any historical reality unless “proven” by outside sources and the “maximalists” who basically accept the account of the Torah , in broad terms, as long as there is no explicit “evidence” to contradict it.

 

  1. My personal beliefs and approach to these questions are traditional and I believe with a full heart that the avot existed , that yetziat mitzrayim occurred and that the revelation at Sinai was a real event and not simply a metaphor.  I am not convinced by much of the argumentation that has been made for the minimalist point of view, especially as a significant portion of it is predicated on arguments from silence (lack of positive archeological evidence) which should always be approached with skepticism and wariness. The question that confronts us, as ma’aminim is, whether there is room, however, to entertain a less traditional conception of the historicity of the events in the Torah than the one I outlined above, and remain within the parameters of Torah Min Hashamayim. In other words: Can one entertain the radical notion that God would communicate to human beings narratives and details which were not historically accurate or did not even occur in order to convey metaphysical, religious, philosophical, or national “truths” even if they did not reflect the reality as it occurred? This issues needs to be addressed both on the macro level as well as on the level of details.

 

  1. One area of discussion that has explicit precedents in medieval rishonim are questions related to the first chapters of Genesis. A  number of rishonim, including most prominently, Rambam, have taken the position that in light of their understanding of science and reason’s dictates, parts of the Creation narrative and the stories related to Adam and Havvah in Gan Eden do not have to be read literally but should be read allegorically. In the modern period, other Orthodox rabbis have entertained extending this precedent to other narratives found in Ch. 1-11 in Bereishit. In recent years, these issues have been discussed at length by R. Natan Slifkin and others and in the blog posts and essays that emerged during the controversy surrounding the “banning” of his books in the Hareidi community. In a number of public lectures both at YU and in yeshiva high schools in the NY area, YU Rosh Yeshiva, R. Jermey Wieder has addressed these issues as well. R. Wieder’s examines the writings of Rav Saadiah Gaon and the Rambam and other rishonim on this issue. Of course the question that is unclear is what exactly are the limits of interpreting narratives in an allegorical way, how far can one go with this and to what extent?  R. Wieder’s bottom line conclusion regarding the stories of Genesis, Ch. 1-11 is that if one was convinced that these narratives were not entirely historical, one would not be in violation of any yesodei ha-Torah in adopting that position.

 

  1. Moving on to the narratives of the avot up through the sojourn in Egypt, R. Wieder raises the question as to whether a believing Jew can maintain that these stories are foundational narratives communicated by God rather than actual historical events. In his lecture at YU R. Wieder states:

When you move to the stories of the avos, let me state from the outset again here I have no reason to believe the stories of the avos weren’t historical. But suppose someone were to come along and say, ‘I suppose they were not history because of x,y,z evidence- would prove they can’t be historical figures’- In this particular case even though I profess a profound degree of uncomfortableness I don’t think the person has crossed the line because I don’t think the historical existence of the avos is compelling or necessary as one of the ikarei haemunah.  Now I know that the Torah frequently mentions Avraham Yitschok and Yaakov but nonetheless it’s not really fundamental, if you look, even though at the outset I mentioned, I denied that there is a clear definition of what ikarei haemunah are despite the Rambam’s 13 ikarei haemunah, if you were to look at the Rambam’s 13 ikarei haemunah and say the avos never existed historically I don’t think there would be any conflict… 
I can’t tell you exactly what would be enough to persuade me that a certain part of the story of Avraham Yitschak and Yaakov should be read as non historical. Do I think that there could be such evidence? Yes. But do I know of any? Not necessarily… What is the purpose of Breshis then? And I believe that the answer lies, I will say this carefully, the way I might term a divinely dictated creation ‘mashal’  
 Hashem told us metaphysical truths, whether it’s Breishis or parshas Noach, that were meant to teach us fundamental truths.” 

This is a very radical notion and I am not sure whether other contemporary Orthodox rabbinic thinkers who are comfortable with reading parts of Ch 1-11 as allegories would be willing to sign on to R. Wieder’s conclusion. What would be interesting to examine as well is a middle position. What would be the status of a view that suggests that the avot and imahot existed but individual details of the stories did not take place as recorded. To take a small example, what would be the status of a view that maintained that Yaakov and Rachel were real figures but they did not meet at the well, but that the well scene is a typological scene intended to fit the avot into a certain literary model? This question has not been addressed explicitly in these discussions and would need to be addressed.

 

 

  1. When we move to the foundational events of the narrative of the Torah such as yetziat metzrayim and Matan Torah, R. Wieder articulates the clear theological truth that these events are at the core of the notion of the yesodei Hatorah and the underpinnings for our obligation to keep the Torah and mitzvoth. He would read any metaphorization of these events as beyond the pale of acceptable beliefs in any traditional sense. He specifically speaks of a rejection of yetziat mitzrayim as “safek kefirah” and a rejection of the historicity of Matan Torah as heretical. Again the interesting question here from a theoretical point is where would someone who rejected the notion of 600,000 men leaving Egypt at once being “true” but did accept the notion of a smaller Exodus of e.g.  60,000 people- where would that position appear on the spectrum?

 

  1. In the lengthy programmatic essay to my volume of Tanakh entitled Mikra and Meaning (Maggid/Koren, 2012) I addressed the broad issues involved in our discussion. I reproduce that discussion below (pgs. 45-48):

 

The assumption behind the use of such disciplines and data lies in the notion that Tanakh is a tome that reflects the concrete historical and sociological reality into which God chose to reveal His eternal will to mankind. As Rabbi Yuval Cherlow has described the methodology of his mentor, Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun:

 

The Tanakh took place in a concrete reality. The position of “accursed philosophy” that events described in Tanakh did not occur and that it is entirely a symbolic work were entirely rejected by gedolei Yisrael. The Tanakh is not only ensconced in the heav- ens, but is rather a ladder rooted in the ground whose top reaches the firmament. Therefore, understanding the reality in which the events of Tanakh took place enables one to understand the Torah itself. The concrete reality is an indispensable part of the Torah and it is not for naught that the Sages stated that “dibber hakatuv bahoveh” – “the text speaks in the present reality”… This is all done with a clear distinction between the holy and secular, and  a profound understanding that the Torah is not chained to a spe- cific [historical] reality. The purpose of engaging in understanding the concrete reality of the biblical stories is not to transform the Avot into simple merchants or [to see] the divine laws as parallels to human legislation, but rather to serve as comparative soil upon which to uncover the foundation of the word of God and His Torah and understand the divine revelation in its profundity.

If this idyllic picture were the entire story, I imagine that there would be little opposition to the use of these disciplines in the beit midrash. The broader picture is, of course, more complicated. First, there is the matter of conflicts between the academic or scientific evidence and theories and the history laid out in the biblical narrative. This is a sub- set, of course, of the millennia-old tension between “scientific” truth and “revealed” truth that has agitated thinkers and theologians across a variety of faith traditions.

In general, the same strategies with which we deal with conflicts between the physical sciences and the truths of tradition should be utilized here as well. In some instances, we will have to explore whether what we consider a “revealed” truth is really no more than an interpretation that can be reevaluated in light of compelling scientific evidence. In other words, have we truly understood what the word of God is saying, and is the conflict indeed so direct? A good example of this is Nahmanides’ reevaluation of the location of Rachel’s tomb after he reached Eretz Yisrael and saw the geography of the biblical sites themselves.63

In other instances, we will note the distinction between scien- tificfacts and the scientific interpretation of those facts or conjectures/ theories as to the meaning of those facts. While actual facts must always be assimilated and interpreted, we must recognize that interpretation of archaeological finds is often “more art than science…and that new discoveries and new perceptions are constantly forcing reevaluations of currently held positions. It is this state of flux which helps alleviate such tensions to a certain degree by allowing discrepancies and contradictions to stand while awaiting further clarification.64 We will also highlight distinctions between positive evidence and arguments from silence – that is, the absence of historical or archaeological finds to but- tress a particular biblical narrative. Given the fact that so much about the Ancient Near East is not known, many important sites have not been excavated, many important finds have been discovered by chance, and in the estimate of some scholars, less than 10% of the material and documentary culture of the Ancient Near East has been discovered. Thus, arguments from silence (for example, lack of material evidence of Joshua’s conquest of the land of Israel) are rather tenuous in establishing the lack of historicity of this or that biblical episode.

In more extreme situations, we may have to follow in the footsteps of Maimonides, who articulated the position that if an unassailable scientific theory conflicts with the plain sense of the biblical text and there exists no other tenable scientific theory conforming with the biblical text, we are obligated to accept the scientific theory and reinterpret, even metaphorically, the biblical passage under question.65 In the particular issue that he was discussing – Aristotle’s theory of the eternity of the universe – Maimonides notes that the alternate theory of Plato is also logically cogent and it can co-exist with a belief in the Creation of the World and the possibility of miracles, and we are therefore entitled to adopt that theory. Maimonides factors in the theological cost of metaphorizing a significant part of Tanakh; given that two equally possible theories exists, we are entitled to privilege the one that fits in with the plain understanding of the biblical text.

Applying this to our context, Professor Uriel Simon has noted that:

“Metaphorizing large sections of biblical historiography [as would emerge from the conclusions of certain radical Israeli archae- ologists] would demand of us a high theological cost…and one cannot ignore that factual truth has a unique persuasive power… In the dilemma we confront, it is appropriate, in my opinion, that we struggle for the maximum historicity of the Bible, with a careful watch on maintaining our intellectual and scientific honesty, as if indeed the historicity [of a particular episode] is debunked, we have a sort of safety net [in the use] of legitimate metaphorization.”

 

There may be instances in which even this method will not yield a satisfactory resolution. In those cases, we will humbly take our cue from our patriarch Abraham and the message of the Akeida, recognizing the limits of our human comprehension and accepting the divine call and message that emerges from the text, although it flies in the face of the “scientific” data that is before us. We will humbly wiat for resolution, accepting with faith the divine imperative as we continue to living and wrestling with the problem.

  1. On the question of the historicity of specific details of this or that narrative, there is an important perspective that was developed by Rav Mordechai Breuer z”l.  For those who follow in his footsteps the following view raises much food for thought.

In the recent volume Ad Hayom Hazeh on fundamental questions in Bible study, published by R. Amnon Bazak , a RAM at Yeshivat Har Eztion and leading Tanakh educator at Michlelet Herzog he summarizes R. Breuer’s perspective on this issue as follows:

“The fundamental pillar of the Shitat Habehinot, the approach of the perspectives [of Rav Breuer] is that in relation to contradictory descriptions [in the Torah] of events, one cannot know from the plain sense of the text what actually happened, and how one resolves the contradictory descriptions which reflect the various perspectives. The essential point of the text is to convey the events and their meaning, However, in order to express the various distinct philosophical ideas, the text emphasizes varying perspectives, which can create contradictions that have no clear practical resolution in the text itself.”

 

At this point R. Bazak cites the famous comment of the Tosafist, Rabbeinu Peretz of Corveil  that even when it comes to issues of “metziut”- factual events or realities such as the size of the alter in the Temple where we have conflicting Biblical sources as to its height, one can apply the concept of “eilu ve-eilu divrei elokim hayyim” that both these and these are the words of the living God. R. Peretz writes (Eruvin 13b) that:

 

“In reality, it could only have been one size. However, one opinion maintains from a textual source that this is what it should have been (its size) and one cites (a contradictory verse) as to what should have been (its size). And the statement “elei veilu divrei elokim hayyim” means that from the verses there is room to interpret this way or that way, but in truth it only could have been one (size).”

R. Bazak continues:

“This (position of Rabbeinu Peretz) indicates that also in relation to historical/factual issues, the text of the Tanakh, does not present a decisive view on what occurred, and the verses can be interpreted in one direction or the other…even though in truth it is clear that only one version in truth occurred. The Mikra does not, therefore, present, what actually occurred in reality, but rather raises various possibilities as to what could be.”

In R. Breuer’s thinking it is here that the “derash” plays a critical role in expressing what actually happened in reality or what should happen on a legal, juridical level in the legal parts of Humash.:

“The derash describes what happened in reality, in fact [in the narratives portions]. The plain sense of the text- the peshat-describes what should have been. This fact is well accepted and known to all in the realm of the halakhic sections of the Torah. My “Torat Habehinot” simply moved this approach also to the narrative portions.”

TWO SHORT AFTERWORDS

1. The issues raised in these blog posts and in the discussions that have been taking place in the last twenty five years and most recently on the web and blogosphere are highly charged and touch on sensitive areas of emunot ve-deot and core, foundational elements of our perception of ourselves as avdei Hashem, the claims of the mesorah and the integrity of the Torah. We live in an age when the challenges of modern Biblical study are accessible to all, either on the popular level on the internet or volumes written for the lay public or on the scholarly level in the halls of academia. Thinking Jews are struggling with these issues and we can simply not ignore engaging with these ideas head. At the same time, I urge all those who speak and write on these topics in our community to approach these issues with humility and a sense of yirah. Part of that gestalt is ability to live with a tzarikh iyun and the ability to express the tensions between traditional notions and the academic assertions in a manner, tone and language that is respectful of the claims of traditional notions of ikarei ha-emunah, broadly conceived. Struggle and engagement are the reality of our modern existence and we should never be complacent that the regnant academic theory is the last word on any of these critical issues.

In this context, I note with pain that recent formulations that have been put forward in books and in the last few weeks on websites, by some very sincere, thoughtful and serious individuals and talmidei chachamim, by people who have contributed mightily to am yisrael and Torah learning,  did not reflect that struggle. Instead, they expressed ideas in a conclusive fashion that, in my understanding, are beyond the pale of the broadest definitions of what can be considered traditional notions of Torah Min Hashamayim.

I hope that Hazal’s dictum of ke-sheim she-makblim sahar al ha-drisha, kakh mikablim sahar al ha-prisha is part of all of the consciousness of all who write on these sensitive topics. This perspective is critical when we honestly consider whether words we have written may have crossed a line in either tone, style or substance in engaging these devarim ha-omdim be-rumo shel olam.

  1. The words “heretics” and “heretical” have often been invoked on a whole range of issues in the ideological battles within Orthodoxy in the last two centuries.  It is important to note that most of the leading lights of the last two generations have rejected the application of the term  “apikores” to various people who were led to their conclusions based on sincere reading of the sources. The roots of this perspective are in the famous comment of the Raavad that while the Rambam considered anyone who believed in a corporeal God (a rejection of one of the essential pillars of the faith acc. to Rambam) as a heretic, there were many great people who came to that erroneous conclusion from their reading of Tanakh and Hazal. And thus while they were wrong and the idea should be rejected, the person was not to be read out of the community. (This is in contrast to Rav Hayyim’s position that “nebekh an apikorus, is still an apikores”.) This trend was further developed by the perspectives of Rav Kook and the Hazon Ish that saw in the modern zeitgeist a period of hiddeness of God and “intellectual coercion” that neutralized the category of apikores as a live halakhic category. (For an early and full presentation of this perspective see, R. Shlomo Riskin, “Orthodoxy and Her Alleged Heretics” Tradition, 1975). This trend has further been buttressed by the writings of Rav Yehuda Amital zt”l and R. Norman Lamm who have written eloquently that one who harbors real doubts about fundamentals of Judaism does not (even according to Rambam) come under the category of “heretic”, especially if one has not transformed those doubts into functional doubt and rejection of shemirat ha-mitzvot. These sources do not mean that all ideas are therefore considered Orthodox, but it does mitigate the reaction to the individual or individuals ( both ideologically and in halakhic terms) who sincerely maintain positions and perspectives that one evaluates have crossed the boundaries of what can legitimately be part of traditional Judaism.
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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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An Invitation to Me’ah She’rim for Rabbi Lopatin, and I accept!

July 24, 2009

From Rav Pinchas Lipschutz, Editor of Yated Neeman in the USA:

I invite Lopatin and the rabbi who wrote in The Jerusalem Post to join me for a visit to Meah Shearim. Let’s go visit the stores and places of business of the Reb Aralach – yes they do work – and see how they conduct themselves. Let’s visit their homes and see how they live. Let’s follow them to the Beis Medrash and observe them davening and learning. We’ll go to the rebbe and you can ask him all your questions. We’ll visit Ben Zion Oiring and watch a one-man chesed operation in action. We’ll talk to Uri Zohar and hear what he has to say. We will pay a visit to Rav Dovid Soloveitchik and you can ask him why he publicly referred to the sorry story as a blood libel. We can just stand at Kikar Shabbos and watch how these loving lovely people go about their daily affairs. If, G-d forbid there should be a need for another hafganah we can attend and watch how Yerushalmi yidden peacefully express their pain and how they are treated by the police. And we can stay till the bitter end and watch how the rif-raf comes and destroys the place. And then we can review together what we have seen and determine whether a re-evaluation is in order.

Dear Rav Lipschutz,

With a spirit of achdus and cheshbon hanefesh,I would like to take you up on your invitation to join you for a visit to Meah She’arim. I have been there many times, as I’m sure most of us reading this blog have, and have been there for a tisch at Toldos Ahron – I believe – but it would be different going with you in a spirit of love and appreciation for acheinu beis Yisrael, who are so committed to Torah and Yiddishkeit – as all of us recognize. I would like to organize an Achdus trip to Israel with Modern Orthodox rabbis, Centrist Orthodox rabbis and Yeshiveshe velt rabbonim all going together for the outstanding itinerary you propose for Meah She’arim, and then to continue into the Old City to visit Yeshivat Ateret Kohanim, then to walk on to Yeshivat Hakotel, Eish Hatorha, Yeshivat Porat Yosef, and to end up in Talpiot Mizrach to visit Beit Morasha and in Bakkah to visit the Pardes Institute, led by Rav Daniel Landes, the great grandson of Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank, zt”l. I would like to invite also Rabbanei Tzohar – perhaps Rav Cherlow and Rav Yehoshua Shapira, as well as leading rabbanim in the Chareidi world in Eretz Yisrael. Together we will show how the greatest Kiddush HaShem is the Achdus of Klal Yisrael and its Torah leadership.

Kol tuv and a gut Shabbos,

Asher Lopatin


A Vacation From Ideology – Rabbi Barry Gelman

July 14, 2009

I am on vacation in New York and whenever I visit New York I try to make time to visit my favorite Jewish book store, Biegeleisen. You see, I am a seforim junkie and I must get my fix every year. To my mind there is no better dealer that the good people of Biegeleisen. 

 

WARNING: Do not confuse Biegeleisen with a Judaica store for there are no fancy havdallah sets, no cookbooks and no jewish music for sale there. Beigeleisen is seforim only (almost all hebrew with a few englsih books floating around).

 

The store is located in Borough Park, Brooklyn, a well known chareidi community. The streets are lined with kosher food stores, clothing stores for women with clothes that meet the modesty standards of that community and many yeshivot and shteibels (small one room synagogues).

 

Sometime visiting communities like Borough Park makes me feel like I am on a different planet. The ways and customs of that place are so different in so many fundamentally important ways from those that I and my community practice. I have often felt bad about this reality and naively hoped that it could be different. Sort of my own little, “can’t we all just get along” dream. 

 

For some reason this year’s pilgrimage to my seforim mecca left me feeling differently. Read the rest of this entry »


Changing Attitudes-Engaging Intermarried Jews and Their Families – By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

June 19, 2009

What should our attitude be when an interfaith family comes to our Shul or community?  Should we actively try to engage interfaith families or might this give people the impression it is OK to intermarry?  What should a Rabbi do when a couple comes to him who perhaps knows little about Judaism, and may not even realize intermarriage is frowned upon?  Should the rabbi reject them?  Rebuke them?  Accept them?  Help with their wedding, since they will certainly be marrying?  Does it make a difference if the man or woman is the Jew?

The word intermarriage rings for many in the Jewish community like the sound of a (wooden) coffin nail; and indeed, 75 years ago in America it was.  A whole generation of American Jews to whose parents Jewish life and Jewish tradition were important, viewed marrying a non-Jew as their ticket to becoming an American instead of a Jew, the way to a safer, freer and more prosperous life without Judaism.   Appropriately, parents tore their clothing and sat shiva for intermarried children because often those intermarriages did signify a Jewish end.

As an Orthodox rabbi I believe Jews should marry other Jews.  Never the less I think we do damage to the Jewish people if we react to intermarriage today no differently than we did in the past generation.  Read the rest of this entry »