Friday, May 05, 2023

Are Gay Jews Really Abominable?

Openly gay rabbi - Steven Greenberg (TOI)
One of the most difficult issues for me to contemplate is homosexuality. 

This was not always the case. Back in the late 60s when I was a college student majoring in psychology, homosexuality was considered abnormal - a textbook mental disorder. Back then, if someone was a homosexual, he kept it on the ‘down low’. Many of them living a heterosexual lifestyle on the surface. Sometimes even getting married and raising a family. (Whether gay people marrying heterosexually is good idea or not is beyond the scope of this post.) 

The concept of gay pride did not exist back then. The word ‘gay’ was not even remotely connected to homosexuals. Being gay meant being happy or cheerful. Gay people were embarrassed by those feelings. And probably felt guilty succumbing to them.  If they ever got caught in a homosexual relationship, it ruined their lives. Society was cruel to gay people back then. Often ridiculing them. Sometimes even physically attacking them.

I was never in favor of ridiculing anyone for any reason. Especially if it was based on their mental health. I actually felt sorry for gay people. But at the same time I felt comfortable in the knowledge that homosexuality was considered abnormal by both the Torah and mental health professionals - who would provide therapy to those struggling with this disorder. This was the how homsexuality was treated when I got my Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology in 1969.

A few years later things changed dramatically. From a description at an NIH website

In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) removed the diagnosis of “homosexuality” from the second edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). This resulted after comparing competing theories, those that pathologized homosexuality and those that viewed it as normal. In an effort to explain how that decision came about, this paper reviews some historical scientific theories and arguments that first led to the placement of homosexuality in DSM-I and DSM-II as well as alternative theories that eventually led to its removal from DSM III and subsequent editions of the manual. 

It isn’t too hard to figure out what happened next. All we need do is open our eyes to the what may very well be the dominating issue of our day. Once homosexuality was normalized, the number of people identifying as such exploded. The entertainment industry has taken it upon themselves to - not only normalize gay couples - but paint them as morally superior to typical  heterosexual couples.  Many perhaps even most TV series has a gay couple and portrays them that way.

I believe the motivation in doing that is based on the widely accepted  theory that one is born gay and cannot change. That there is a ‘gay’ gene which predetermines that. I’m not sure that this has been firmly established as a medical certainty. But it’s pretty clear that attempts to change what sex one is attracted to does not work in most cases. In those instances where it does work, it is usually interpreted that client was not really gay but confused. And that psychotherapy clarified for them their actual heterosexual status. 

So why is this issue so difficult for me? Well, for one thing it contradicts my formal education on the subject. It’s hard to see something as abnormal one day and normal the next – regardless of how the mental health establishment now sees it.

More importantly, however, is the ‘elephant’ in the room. The biblical passage which reads: 

Do not lie with a male as with a woman; this is an abomination. (Vayikra 18:22) 

Before the APA removed homosexuality from the DSM, this was relatively easy to understand since it was considered an abnormal act. But now that it is considered normal and even healthy to live one’s life as gay if that is one’s natural inclination, that verse in the Torah contradicts it.

To be clear and briefly reiterate my views on the subject - we must treat gay people with the human dignity the Torah demands of us. As human beings, they too were created in the image of God. Despite who they are attracted to. It isn’t the attraction that is an abomination. It is acting on it in the way the Torah expressly forbids that is. That is the abomination, Not the inclination.

Which brings me to an article in the Times of Israel by Steven Greenberg,an openly gay rabbi and gay advocate who ‘came out of the closet’ after he was ordained. It was titled: 

Am I an abomination? An Orthodox publisher speaks to gay teens 

Therein he praises a new translation (by Koren publishers) of the Chumash that softens the English translation somewhat – changing the word abomination to abhorrent. (...based on the translation used by the late Chief rabbi of the UK, Lord Jonathan Sacks.) Koren includes commentary that takes into consideration the changes in societal attitudes and suggests appropriate ways for observant Jews to treat it. Which can be summed up as: Hate the sin – love the sinner. 

But as Greenberg justifiably asks: Does this make gay Jews who want to be observant feel any better? How could it?! They are being told that the typical way in whech they can satistfy their natural sex drive is at best considered abhorrent.

Greenberg concludes that while Koren’s new approach to homosexuality is a very positive step, a lot more needs to be done to make gay Jews be ‘loved and respected’.                                   

His point is well taken. ‘Abhorrent’ may be a better choice of words than ‘abomination’. But doing something the Torah considers abhorrent is not going to make gay Jews feel much better about reconciling their homosexuality and their desire to be observant Jews.

If you are going to be an observant Jew who believes that the Torah is the word of  God, you cannot ‘translate’ that verse out of its essential meaning. Nor can you explain it with tortured interpretations. Like saying that the forbidden homosexual act doesn’t apply to actual gay people… that it applies only to heterosexuals who engage in it. 

The Torah is very clear. I realize that this makes it hard on gay teens. To put it the way Greenberg does: 

What would it be like for you to read in this week’s Torah portion that you and your budding romantic feelings are abominable? (Or even abhorrent for that matter.)

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t respect gay people or sympathize with their struggles. We can and we should. Especially in our confusing cultural climate where societal values are the opposite of Torah values. 

Like it or not we cannot change the word of God into something that it isn’t. 

That being said, I can’t imagine what it’s like for a gay teen who believes in the Torah and wants to be observant – living in a world that tells him that acting on his natural sexual inclinations is to be celebrated with pride.  The tension imposed on them between these two opposite sets of values must be unbearable

I know my view on this matter doesn’t solve anything. Sadly depression and suicide are still a part of the gay culture. I’m just telling it like it is while at the same time sympathizing with their plight. 

I sometimes wonder whether things weren’t better before 1973. There seems to be infinitely more gay people now than there were then. Or is it that the percentages are the same but more are out of the closet now. Are more gay people suffering from depression now then they were then? Or worse - are more gay people committing suicide now than they did then? Hard to know. But no matter what the numbers are - one gay suicide is one too many. And I don’t know what can be done about it within the confines of the Torah.