Friday, June 10, 2016

Eshel - A Force for Acceptance or for Change?

There seems to be some confusion among Orthodox Jews about homosexuality and gender identity. I think that these are two separate issues that need to be dealt with separately. I am going to limit this discussion to homosexuality. All I will say about gender identity issues is that we should treat all human beings with the dignity required to all beings created in God’s image. And not judge them. Judging people is God’s domain. Not ours. God only requires of us to believe in Him, His Torah, and to follow His law.

The question is, how do we apply His law to people whose sexual orientation is to be attracted only to members of the same sex? I have written about this before. Many times. My views can be encapsulated in the following popular phrase: Hate the sin, love the sinner. We are all after all sinners in need of constant repentance. Gay people included.

The problem is in how society in general treats them. Until the 70s, homosexuality was considered an abnormal psychological disorder. As such gay people tended to ‘stay in the closet’ for fear of being ostracized. In the 70s the American Psychological Association discarded that description and determined that homosexuality was not a disorder but instead an orientation. Things changed and a lot of people who were gay came out of the closet. But societal attitudes were not so quick to embrace this new description of homosexuality. And still today there is plenty of prejudice towards them. Which is unfair.

It’s unfair because whether it is nature or nurture that is responsible for same sex attraction, (..and I tend to think it is a little of both) there is little doubt that these feelings are almost – if not entirely - impossible to change. If someone is attracted to members of the same sex, that will very likely stay a lifelong attraction.

What I will say next may surprise some people – even though I have said it before. There is no sin in being attracted to the members of the same sex. People can’t help who they are attracted to. Yes, the Torah says that for a man to lie with another man in the manner of a woman is considered an abomination. And that it is an act worthy of a court ordered death penalty – if properly warned and witnessed. But an attraction is not an act. Attractions are not punished at all.

The problem is that much of society will look at a gay person with revulsion. There are I think 2 reasons for that. One is that it is a vestige of the past leftover from the days when it was considered abnormal behavior. But more importantly the biblical prohibition referenced above is generalized to the individual and not the behavior. This too is unfair. And I firmly believe that such attitudes have contributed to the abnormally high suicide rate among gay people. Which is something we should all consider when discussing these things.

It is incumbent upon us all to treat every human being with dignity and respect, regardless of who they are attracted to.

How far do we go with this? That is one of the hotly debated issues right now. Since the 70s we have gone from a society that was aghast at homosexual behavior to one in which gay marriage is now the law of the land. If what statisticians say about the American people is true, most of us are in favor of it. There are however a huge number of people – myself among them - that are still opposed to it.

I believe the following is the correct approach. One must treat homosexuals no different than heterosexuals, but one must not treat what the Torah forbids as though it was permitted. And certainly not place a societal imprimatur on it by - for example - sanctioning gay marriage. One should not celebrate a relationship that tends towards violation of Torah law. Acceptance of an individual with same sex attraction does not mean acceptance of a lifestyle based on it.

Which leads me to Eshel. Here is how they define their mission on their website (edited for brevity): 
Eshel’s mission is to create community and acceptance for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews and their families in Orthodox communities…(It) provides hope and a future for Orthodox LGBT women, men, and teens… (It) creates bridges into Orthodox communities to foster understanding and support… (and) helps LGBT Orthodox people pursue meaningful lives that encompass seemingly disparate identities while also fulfilling Jewish values around family, education, culture, and spirituality… 
I see nothing wrong with their mission as stated. But I have to question whether part of their goal is to normalize the behavior itself. Full acceptance implies that. So that when an Orthodox Shul sponsors an LBGT weekend – as did two such Shuls recently, it appears to be not only be accepting of gay people, but of their  lifestyle as well. And that is tantamount to approving behavior that the Torah clearly forbids (even if they don’t say it explicitly). I therefore consider it a mistake for them to have done so. 

It would be one thing to have a forum where these issues are discussed… and have a representative from Eshel present their views. It is another to have a Shabbaton implying full acceptance of their lifestyle. Which often includes behavior that is clearly forbidden by the Torah.

So in essence I agree with Rabbis Dovid and Reuven Feinstein who opposed it as reported by Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer in a Cross Currents article. Homosexuality should not be celebrated as a lifestyle choice.

But I also think that how these rabbis characterized Eshel is incorrect – if one is to believe the above mentioned mission statement. Eshel does not ‘demand that we change the Torah’s timeless standards to accord with prevalent secular attitudes’ as those rabbis said in their appeal to those synagogues. If their mission is purely one of acceptance of individuals - it ought to be applauded.

I’m sure that those rabbis would agree with that. It is only what they thought Eshel was doing they do not accept. If that were true, I would oppose them too.

I’m also sure that that both Rabbis Feinstein would agree with  Rabbi Aharon Feldman, who said the following (as paraphrased by Rabbi Gordimer): 
Navigating the delicate path between forbidden homosexual activity and being a committed, frum Jew, Rav Feldman creates a blueprint and lays forth a mandate for such a person to remain in the community and to be a vital part of it – not by in any way legitimizing homosexual activity, but by moving beyond it and committing to a life of Torah and mitzvos and productivity for Yiddishkeit and K’lal Yisroel.  
I could not agree more.