Generic photo of a rabbi. NOT the speaker
This is a transcription from a speech given by a chassidic rabbi, a paskening rov, who does not identify as gay but who has been very supportive of LGBT people. This was not a private answer, but something that was said in front of an extremely large audience. Any mistakes are mine and not the rabbi's.
I’d like to start with my personal journey regarding Judaism and homosexuality. It goes back over twelve years. It was late Thursday night. I came back after a long meeting and my wife said to me “Why are you crying?” I told her I’m sad for a young Jewish man, an Orthodox young man in his mid-thirties, who’d been to yeshiva for a number of years. He had come around after making an appointment and cancelling it, and then making another appointment and cancelling that one too, and then again, until he actually took courage to come around.
He presented me with three questions:
1) I have never been attracted to women. I have always been attracted to men. I know there is a commandment in the Torah to be fruitful and multiply. Pru urvu. I have to have children. Is it indeed incumbent on me to get married and have children?
2) To the extent that I am a homosexual in orientation, meaning that I am only attracted to men and not to women, how would you behave towards me if I came to your shul? Would you allow me to daven before the amud? Would you allow me to get an aliyah? Would you allow me to be part of the community? What would happen if you knew I wasn’t just a homosexual in orientation but I was actually active, and engaged in a relationship with another man? Would that make a difference to you?
3) If it’s true that the Torah in the Book of Leviticus makes it clear, unequivocal, that it’s forbidden to engage in male homosexual liaison, I have to ask the question; G-d made me this way or He allowed me to develop like this, nature, nurture, but at the end of the day, I never chose it. From a very young age, this is what I recall. This is who I am. But G-d says, “Don’t engage in male-to-male intercourse”, so that means that I am obliged and presumed to remain celibate for my whole life. I won’t ask you why would G-d should do such a thing, to allow a [gay] person to develop through nature, nurture, providence, biology - and at the same time, constrain him in such a way as to give him a commandment that means that he has to remain lonely, to live a loveless life, craving for closeness, intimacy, physical intimacy included in sexuality, nevertheless deprived, frustrated, living a life of misery.
[The young man] posed those three questions that night and I hope to answer those three questions here now…
With regard to marriage, I said to him what I thought then was the obvious answer. I still think it is and I am surprised that there are others who disagree. If anyone, man or woman, draws another person into a marital relationship knowing that the other person is heterosexual, if a gay person draws another person into a relationship knowing that the other person craves a normal marriage and they are gay and they don’t inform their spouse of their orientation, this is an ethical crime of the highest order.
Even if they do achieve what might be called informed consent, such a marriage is, “generally speaking” (there are always exceptions to every rule) an unconceived marriage for a number of obvious reasons. Even though, halachically, a man is obliged to get married and have children, there are circumstances when a person is not emotionally or physically equipped to have children. If a person is not attracted to women, then this would mean he would be exempt from fulfilling the positive commandment “Be fruitful and multiply.” Halachically, I explained that there is a category *, there is only a certain extent that a person must push themselves or expend his resources in order to fulfill any given commandment, including this primary commandment of getting married. If a person’s psychological infrastructure was such that it didn’t attract him to women, he is not obliged to steel himself and live in a marital relationship in order to have children.
Subsequently, even recently, I have realized how important it is that this message gets across. Firstly, because I myself have seen many cases where people have been encouraged by spiritual leaders, psychological counselors, lay leaders, to get married and very often these [gay] people have gotten married with the best intentions and subsequently, they’ve suffered the consequences. They, their spouses, their children. In the aftermath of an acrimonious divorce, things become extremely messy, extremely painful for them.
The other reason is, because only recently in a kiruv journal that’s published in Flatbush, it was suggested that people who go through therapy, even though they are going to have relapses, even though it’s almost inevitable that there will be relapses into homosexual conduct, should get married. I find this to be mind-boggling! I feel it is important that people should be aware that getting married is not just a privilege, it’s a responsibility and a duty, and if a [gay] person doesn’t have the ability to remain committed and is unlikely to be able to suppress his inclination in all ways and at all times, then it’s better that he doesn’t get married. On the contrary, to give up the dream of marriage and having children and bringing grandchildren to ones own parents is an extremely difficult thing, and those people who do that, knowing that they are not able to honour the marital vows, are in actuality doing an act of altruism, in depriving themselves of blessings that they themselves may crave, the blessings of family life and children.
With regard to the second question, I said to him, paraphrasing what my friend Rabbi M said, the Torah prohibition is not about orientation, it’s about actions. Clearly, whatever a person is, no matter what his orientation is, he should be welcome in shul. He should be a full-fledged member of the synagogue, and there should not be ostracizing and then, he’d never be disenfranchised. We should accept any member, man or woman, regardless of their orientation.
There are, however, two types of communities. There are those communities that only allow people who observe the entire Torah to be part of their community. If you do even one sin, then you are out. Clearly, such a community would not allow an active homosexual Jew to be a part of their community. But the vast majority of Jewish communities today do allow all sorts of people, many of whom don’t keep a whole host of laws, to be part of the shul membership. And it must be added, people who are dishonest in business are allowed to be members of those shuls. Dishonesty in business is an infringement of a law against ones fellow man, an interpersonal crime, whereas homosexual relations are actually only a crime between man and G-d. There is no human victim here. It’s not in an exploitative context.
Rambam, Maimonides, writes in a number of places, in his magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah, that forbidden sexual relationships come under the category of Bein Adam Lemakom, between man and G-d. Therefore, in a community that makes room for people who don’t fully observe the shabbos or the rules of niddah, Taharas Hamishpacha, family purity and so on, there is no reason they should not allow even practicing homosexuals to be part of their community, provided they [the homosexuals] are respectful to the ethos of the synagogue. But that’s true with regard to ALL people. We allow heterosexuals to be part of our community, sometimes we have shabbatonim for young boys and girls on Friday night, we don’t check up on them when they go home, and provided they are respectful to the shul, they behave in accordance with the ethos of the shul, then of course they can be fully participant in the shul.
I believe that most people are not compelled to do things all of the time. There may be exceptions to the rule. In terms of assessing the severity or the lack of severity of a particular crime, you have to take into consideration the context. Today, even if people know something is forbidden, and they know that’s what the Torah says and that’s what the rabbi preaches from the pulpit. Even if they know that’s what they are supposed to do, they were raised in a society that disregarded these prohibitions. Generally speaking, they are classified in halachic literature as a tinok shenisba, a child taken into captivity.
As condescending as the term may sound, Maimonides, in his Laws of Rebels, Hilchot Mamrim, chapter 3, section 3, used this term to describe second generation Karaites, who although they knew all their Jewish obligations and were quite familiar with the rabbinical tradition, and knew what they were supposed to do, nevertheless, since they were brought up in a society that disregards these rules and did not consider them to be binding , they weren’t held responsible to the same degree type as someone who had received an education right from a young age in keeping the laws of the oral rabbinic tradition. The same thing applies here. In western society where many people are brought up under the influence of the Zeitgeist, according to which the sexual morality of the day doesn’t necessarily honour the Torah’s view, such people, where the cap fits, can also be deserving of the title tinok shenisba.
If I say nothing else but this, dayeinu. When G-d judges people, he does not judge them according to the objective category of the crime. He judges them according to their subjective circumstances. Now, any heterosexual, myself included, who thinks about their own challenges, knows that he often slips and falls, even when he could have done better. Think about the plight of homosexuals, such as the young man I was speaking to on that night, who was constrained in a homosexual orientation such that he was not able to have any other outlet. How many of us would actually be ready to commit ourselves to a life of celibacy and avoid all transgressions at all times? I think if we look at ourselves honestly in the mirror and if we put our hands on our hearts, we will acknowledge that this would be a very difficult achievement.
Therefore, understanding the circumstances and the context in which a homosexual finds himself is most important. If G-d judges people according to their circumstances, we too, should do so as well. While that does not mean in any way shape or form that we want to rewrite the halacha, the law, the Torah states explicitly that which it states, nevertheless, it does make a huge difference in the way we approach an individual who is confronted with a special set of challenges, circumstances which are most difficult.
I finally come to the last question I was confronted with that night:
Lamah asah H-shem kacha? Why did G-d make me this way? This question has been so powerful that some rabbis have felt compelled to assume that there must be some magical cure, or way of transforming homosexuals, making them into heterosexuals. Recently, some rabbis issued a Torah Declaration that said that reorientation must be possible for all people because G-d, who is merciful, would not create people to have them locked in an unfulfilling life, lonely and loveless, and that the only way they could get out of this [isolation] would be through a prohibition.
This argument, in my opinion, is theologically flawed, because we find that G-d actually has put lots of people in these circumstances. We can find many people who, whether by providence or from biology, are in circumstances where the only way to escape misery would be through violating halacha. There are people who, because of physiological, biological, emotional or even halachic conditions, can’t get married, and such people have to live a celibate life. And the only way they are able to find intimacy and physical love would be if they were to violate the halacha.
There have been, in the past, many people who were constrained and unable to have children because of premature ovulation, and the laws of niddah affected their ability to have the blessing of children. That’s an example of people committed to keep the halacha who have even suffering childlessness their whole lives, in order not to transgress the halacha. There are people in around the world who have to give up a lot, to live in destitution, even die of poverty, in order not to break shabbos. The idea that despite the nisyonos that G-d gives people, we can somehow straightjacket G-d and insist, and say G-d would never do that, is not correct and not reflective of reality. Therefore I don’t think that is a statement that can be supported. I don’t accept that as the answer to the theological question [of why did G-d make me like thus].
How then do I deal with the theological question? The answer is very simple. I don’t. I don’t have an answer. The question is an important question but it doesn’t have anything to do with homosexuality or heterosexuality or anything to do with sexuality. It has to do with all of these and many more. It has to do with the general question in theology of why do great people suffer from infertility? Why can’t great people find love and spouses? Why do great people suffer from many tragedies, and great, small, or medium-sized difficulties in their lives? We have no ability to answer that. Therefore, it’s important to place this question in the right context. It’s not unique to the sexual portion of Leviticus. It is something about the human condition and the way G-d created us.
In my own meetings with homosexuals, I have four goals that I do believe can be achieved, I strive to achieve them and to a large extent, I have achieved them:
1. Someone who is homosexual should not lose his life from depression, from feelings of impotence, through drugs, through ephemeral relationships and promiscuity.
2. Someone who is homosexual should not lose their family, through them alienating their parents and siblings, or through their parents or siblings alienating them.
3. Homosexuals should not lose their rabbis, their communities, their place in their shul, either through their shul alienating them or them alienating their shul, or through identifying themselves completely by their orientation and going off somewhere else.
4. Homosexuals should not lose their G-d, They shouldn’t feel that just because they have such a tremendous challenge and just because they haven’t always been able to meet the requirements of this challenge according to the Torah, therefore, it’s all or nothing. Strangely, no heterosexuals seem to feel that their failings make them that way [excluded from the frum community]. For some reason, this is a mistake that’s happened; that people feel it’s either all or nothing. We have to somehow make sure that people should recognize that G-d loves all Jewish people, and the Jewish community should make room in their home for every Jew.
As I said before, we should do everything in our power so that homosexual Jews should not lose their lives, not lose their families, not lose their communities and not lose their G-d.