|Rabbi Menachem Penner, Dean of RIETS (YU Website)|
Despite any compassion one may – and indeed should have for people with same sex attraction (SSA), in the world of the Orthodox family that is a difficult pill to swallow. Nevertheless as currently understood, sexual orientation cannot be changed. It appears to be permanent part of a human being’s personality. One is either gay or straight. (Although there are people that are bisexual, that is a subject that needs to be treated separately).
The question at hand is how an Orthodox family might deal with a child that comes out as gay? The sexual act most closely identified with male homosexuality is strictly forbidden by the Torah. Which certainly means avoiding a lifestyle that might involve doing that. Orthodoxy completely rejects living a lifestyle conducive to that. What if a child does it anyway in the belief that living this way is the only way he can survive mentally? Should a parent accept that? Or should they reject it and sever their relationship with the child?
This question was explored in a podcast called 18Forty – hosted by Rabbi David Bashevkin, NCSY’s Director of Education. He interviewed a straight father and gay son who have learned - not only to accept each other – but to having a loving father son relationship with each other. Despite the obvious religious obstacle. Making this even more significant is that the father is Rabbi Menachem Penner, Dean of Yeshivas Rabbenu Yitzchok Elchanan (RIETS). He was joined by his gay son Gedalia.
Needless to say, Gedalia’s parents were shocked and concerned when about 10 or so years ago their young teenage son came out. Here is how Rabbi Penner at first tried to deal with it:
We encouraged Gedalia, and he agreed, to go to reparative therapy... I don’t think that we would have recommended that knowing what we know today, that for an individual with just same-sex attraction, regardless of any of the concerns about reparative therapy, just the question of whether it’s going to work…
Today we would understand better how to begin to work together with him, rather than that focus of, let’s not deal with it. Let’s push it aside. Let’s see if this can change. Let’s give it another five years. So that delayed a lot…
Although that proved to be both futile and a detour to the ultimate close relationship between father and son, Gedalia’s reaction to that experience is instructive. He was not angry at his parents for doing that. Even though his parents strongly urged him to do it, they left it up to him.
Back then that this was a common response by parents desperately wanting their child to live a normal life. (Don’t we all want that for our children?) In Orthodox circles a normal life is pretty well proscribed to being straight, getting married, and having a family. It is relatively recent that the medical community discovered how dangerous reparative therapy could be. But now that we know that, it should not be attempted.
It cannot be emphasized enough how traumatic coming out is to both the child and the parents. It’s easy to say that parents and children should just accept each other since there is nothing anyone can do about it anyway. Not to mention the fact that the culture in which we live is so accepting of homosexuality to the point of normalizing a lifestyle based on it.
In the world of Orthodox Judaism such a lifestyle cannot be considered normal. Both the parents and the gay child realize that – which is why there is such trauma. First there is the obvious trauma to the child who must face his parents knowing how abnormal homoexulaity is in the context of Orthodoxy. And there is also the trauma of a parent wondering how they are going to cope with this socially and religiously. And in the case of a Mechnaech like Rabbi Penner – professionally?
This is where Rabbi Penner shines. His approach is as follows:
I’m not suggesting that one needs to become comfortable with a gay lifestyle, with a halachic violation, whatever it is. But we need to differentiate between orientation, and action and decisions. A part of a parent’s challenge is to accept the orientation of the child. There’s something about it that we’re prejudiced against that makes a person uncomfortable when a person is gay. Over time that becomes much more comfortable. You understand, that’s who my child is, that’s the same child that I love… (But) as I said, it doesn’t mean everything goes out the window.
The following is Gedalia’s approach:
(We must) recognize that this is also an extremely difficult, potentially traumatic experience for (parents) as well, that empathy will go a very long way in making your situation better when you can think about how much is coming from a place of love, and how much it’s coming from a place of fear.
I could not agree more. What should be the approach by rabbis that come across these situations. Here in part is Rabbi Penner’s response:
A rabbi can be very, very loving, and compassionate, and understanding, and yet feel, and yet understand, that the Halacha can’t be changed, or even policies can’t be changed, because there are many other factors here.
And I want to make one thing clear. It shouldn’t be stated that the rabbis wish they could abolish the prohibition of whatever it would be. They wish they could change the rules, but their hands are tied. I don’t think it’s fair to say that. I know it sounds much better to say that, to say, “We wish we could do things, but it’s in God’s hands, and we can’t do it.” I don’t think that’s really a fair way to look at something like this.
We don’t believe, well, we don’t understand many of the different laws. We do assume that the laws are given by a loving God and a knowing God. And the fact that we don’t understand all of the laws, the fact that there are laws that we think we understand better, there are laws we think we understand less, it doesn’t mean that we simply look at Halacha the way one would look at a secular legal system, as something to work around.
This really was a remarkable interview in every way. It is worth reading the transcript (or listening to the podcast) in its entirety.
Please be sensitive to families that might be going through this and DO NOT post any comment that might be hurtful to them. Thank you for your understanding.