Orthodoxy and Homosexuality – Dilemmas and Opportunities

A piece I wrote for the Jewish Chronicle a couple of years ago attempting to find some sort of path in the minefield that is traditional Judaism and homosexuality. 


Homosexuality refuses to leave the community headlines. The recent suspension of Amsterdam’s Chief Rabbi and controversy over whether JFS pupils should learn about Jonah, an organisation which attempts to help young Jews “transform their sexuality”, highlights the acute dilemma homosexuality poses for the Orthodox community.

Biblical verses and centuries of Jewish tradition harshly condemn homosexuality and yet for us moderns, discrimination on the basis of sexuality appears as foreign as sexism or racism. We are torn between fidelity to our religious tradition, which we refuse to see discarded or tendentiously read, and the values that inform contemporary sensibilities, values that we are proud to share.

Missing from much of the recent debate is an assessment of what the options are. One is to maintain a principled opposition to homosexuality as contrary to Jewish values. Sexuality is a choice, and the choice to be attracted to members of the same sex is seen as an immoral one. Reparative therapy should be encouraged and acceptance of homosexuals as they are is deemed impossible. A barrier must be raised against the values of contemporary hedonistic society.

An alternative is to argue for a sea-change in Orthodox Jewish thought and practice that would utterly change the role of homosexuals in Jewish life. This would involve a re-reading of the Torah verses that discuss homosexuality, perhaps to understand the Bible as only prohibiting male rape. Generations of halachic literature would be overturned and all differences between straight and gay couples erased in Orthodox communities, with commitment ceremonies becoming the norm.

The first option appears patronising, if not downright offensive, not only in the eyes of the wider Jewish and British community, but to many, perhaps most, modern Orthodox Jews, and seems to be based as much on prejudice and miseducation as halachah. The Torah prohibits gay sex; it does not mandate homophobia.

But is the second option any more viable? For those of us committed to halachic Judaism, it does great violence to our tradition which unapologetically posits heterosexual marriage as the ideal and only legitimate union. Radical rereading of biblical text and halachic codes to immediately answer the needs of the hour is not how the halachic process works, and we are unwilling to sacrifice halachic principle in an attempt to solve an individual issue, even such a pressing one as this.

Between a rock and a hard place, what options remain? There is one which, though it does not offer perfect solutions, would vastly improve our current situation and whose foundations have been laid by serious scholars including Rabbi Chaim Rapoport in the UK. Those who demand that halachah be updated to fully conform with modern sensibilities must recognise that traditional Judaism is within its rights to privilege heterosexual marriage as its ideal vision of the family, and that existing prohibitions cannot be wished out of existence. Yet at the same time, space must be made for sensitivity, tolerance and respect.

A moratorium would be declared on all offensive and demonising language and would be denounced when found in communities or schools, whether from rabbis and teachers or congregants and pupils. Reparative therapy would be explicitly rejected as wishful thinking that does not make good science and which has lead on occasion to tragic and shameful consequences. No amount of successful “conversions” could be worth a single suicide.

Moreover, the Jewish obligation to view all humans as created in God’s image would compel us to make every Jew, regardless of sexuality, welcome as full members of our communities. Educationally, the message that Judaism is not a religion of all or nothing must be emphasised: Jews are encouraged and expected to observe to their greatest ability the range of commandments, even if they do not observe the halachic lifestyle in its totality.

Most mainstream Jewish communities do not demand flawless observance of Shabbat or family purity laws as conditions of membership (numbers would be far lower if they did), and so we must ask ourselves whether there is a certain amount of hypocrisy that makes us demand higher standards when it comes to homosexuality.

A laudable aspiration would be to create a reality in which an Orthodox young man or woman would be able to come out safe in the knowledge that they are still accepted and loved by their community and without seeing their decision as synonymous with having to give up an observant lifestyle.

No miraculous solutions are at our disposal. One of the most important pieces of Talmudic wisdom is the notion of teiku – the idea that we are not able to provide the answer to every pressing question, even though we hope that one day the answer will be found.

The Midrash describes Moses questioning God as to why the righteous suffer and being told that he will have to live without an answer. We are no greater than Moses and we must share with him the burden of living without a perfect answer. In the meantime there is still much that we can do to improve the current situation – and improve it we must.

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