Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Is Celibacy a Realistic Option for Gay People?

David Benkof - Times of Israel
Not long ago, I recall two Orthodox Jewish gay men in the Chicago area coming out of the closet. One was married (now divorced). The other is not.

I cannot imagine the pain the families have gone through. Right or wrong - the stigma still exists. How does a wife cope with a revelation like this? How do the children cope… the parents; siblings; friends… how do they all deal with this? Can they continue to function in society without feeling that people are whispering behind their backs? I can’t honestly answer these questions. 

I do not know the people in these two Chicago cases - although I know their families. Nor do I really know any openly gay people that well. But my guess is that it isn’t easy on anyone involved. No matter how enlightened society has become - being gay is hardly an accepted lifestyle in Orthodox circles. There is still a lot of intolerance and lack of understanding about this issue. So it is a difficult thing for any mainstream family to accept.

The issue of homosexuality has been discussed here many times.  My take on it is clear. To briefly review my position - the expression ‘Love the sinner; hate the sin’ comes close. The idea being that I recognize the clear biblical prohibition against homosexual activity as spelled out in the Torah: ‘Do not lie with a man in the manner as with a woman. It is an abomination’ (Vayikra 18:22). The Torah tells us that doing so is a capital offense (Vayikra 20:13).

There is however no prohibition on being homosexual. One‘s sexual orientation is not forbidden at all - no matter what form it takes. The Torah does not speak of attractions. It speaks only of actions. Those that are forbidden and those that are required.  There is no sin in being gay. So that if someone announces that he is gay, we should have no problem with that. We are required by biblical obligation to ‘love thy neighbor’ just as much for gay people as we are for straight people.

What about those gay people who do engage in male to male sex? They violate the Torah’s severe prohibition against it. There is no question about that in my mind. All the explanations and apologetics by various well intentioned people are misguided in my view. You cannot twist your way out of such a clear cut statement in the Torah by saying for example ‘Oness Rachmana Patrei’. That a person’s sex drive forces him to do violate prohibitions - and the Torah exempts people that are psychologically ‘forced’ to sin. Such explanations make a mockery of the Torah’s unequivocal prohibition of it.

How should we deal with gay people who surely must engage in this kind of behavior? In my view we must give them the benefit of the doubt. As long as they do not promote it as a way of life, we should treat them like any other Jew who may sin behind closed doors. We are not God’s accountants. If someone sins privately - it is between him and his Maker.

For me that boils down to whether someone is discreet about his sexual behavior even as he is open about his orientation. Or whether he is an advocate for acceptance of the gay lifestyle (and for example wants society to be as accepting of that as they are of a straight lifestyle). The latter of these types of people are to be opposed since they are in effect advocates for a Torah prohibition no less that if they were advocating desecration of Shabbos as a lifestyle.

This in a nutshell is my view.  A views that I have clearly stated in the past.

The question arises - what is a gay person to do with his sex drive? The sex drive is a very powerful part of human nature. It is probably as important as eating and sleeping. The only difference being that sex can be delayed for indefinite amounts of time. But ultimately it needs to be satisfied.

If one is gay and is not attracted to the opposite sex… and can only be satisfied sexually with members of the same sex… how does he deal with that without violating a capital offense in the Torah?

This is a question that many people have grappled with from the right to the left of the Orthodox Jewish spectrum. The right wing tends to recommend reparative therapy. That – by any legitimate measure does not work and can be very harmful. It assumes that one can change his sexual orientation if the proper therapy is applied. But as has been explained in the past – it is not only very degrading – it doesn’t work. I am inclined to believe that despite those who argue in its favor. Others say that one’s sex drive can be sublimated into other activity so that he need not participate in actual gay sex.

There are those who simply say celibacy is the answer for gay men. Difficult though it may be, it possible. And things like sublimation can work towards that goal. There is no question in my mind that this is the best way to satisfy Halacha. If a gay man remains celibate – he is following Halacha.

The gay community has rejected this as an option. They say it is unreasonable if not impossible for a person to remain celibate. The sex drive will eventually overcome him and he will seek release in the only form of sex that can satisfy him.

I can certainly sympathize with this attitude. As I said above, the sex drive is part of human nature. And it is something that ultimately will not be denied. But is that true?

In an article in the Times of Israel written by David Benkof says it is not. Not only does he say it. He lives it. formerly active gay man, David has now been celibate for 10 years. In his search for understanding the religious aspects of being gay he has looked at all the various approaches to it and has found that the only way to honor the biblical command not to engage in sex with another man – is to never do it. And if someone ever does succumb to temptation - he should treat it like any other violation of a biblically forbidden act and do Teshuva. And then start over. Kind of like a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. One day at a time.

I think he’s right. And he is certainly not alone in being celibate. Catholic priests certainly are. Even though there are sex scandals in the Church where many a priest has violated their oath of celibacy, I think it is safe to say that the vast majority of priests don’t violate that oath. So it is possible and it can be done.

That said, I realize it isn’t easy to be celibate. As I said, the sex drive is part of our humanity. So I completely understand recidivism.  Human beings have human failings and sometimes are overwhelmed by the desire to sin in one area or another. And in this area, the Nisayon (test) is probably greater than in any other. 

But even if one fails, that should not be how he defines himself. No different than failing in any other area of Halacha. The goal being that we try and overcome personal challenges. And keep trying if and when we fail. Everybody has challenges in life. Each has his own. Some harder and some - not as hard. It is our obligation to work at overcoming them. And to not judge others if they fail.

I think this is the message David Benkof tries to convey. And I think it is a good one.