Monthly Archives: June 2018

Shlomit Metz-Poolat Esq. responds to Rabbi Kornblau on LBGTQ in the Modern Orthodox community.

Protestant congregations across the United States are facing congregational splits from confronting the issues around LGBTQ issues. There are hundreds of articles in the last few years on how the Presbyterians, Mennonites, Lutherans, and Episcopalians are dealing with the issue in their congregations, for example here, here, here, here, here, and here, Even ostensibly conservative groups such as the Mennonites have to avoid congregational splits over LGBTQ issues.

At this point, there are professional consultants that help congregations avoid splits and many books and articles on the topic. Most of the advice given is that the split starts at the top with the clergy and board. Church splits do not happen suddenly and without warning. There are usually signs of impending disaster. LGBTQ issues are usually connected to other issues of authority and organization. Leaders, if they wanted, should have taken the proper steps to protect the church. Does the clergy worry more about the image of the purity of the congregation and its doctrinal correctness or about division in the Church? The leadership has to ask which bothers or grieves them more the division or the lack of purity. If leadership draw lines in the sand or asserts their theological agenda, then the church splits. However even if there is a split, all is not lost. One can conceive of the split as a needed break between conservative and liberal elements within the community and still have the two congregations work together on bigger communal issues or you can conceive the break as creating two unreconcilable groups. They advise the former.  They also advise that God and God’s will is greater than any clergy or leadership.

The same tensions are currently found in Jewish Modern Orthodox congregations. This essay is to hear from a person who actually bears the pain and real life misery of these theoretical discussions. Much of the discussion below is on her alienation from her beloved congregation, the birth of a split in a congregation, and the assumptions made by rabbinic leadership. The essay focuses on how in real life the LGBTQ congregant is stigmatized with assumptions.

This essay is the third in a series. The first was Rabbi Barry Kornblau on the position of the RCA and the second was by Rabbi Ysoscher Katz on finding holiness with his Modern Chassidic approach.

Shlomit Metz-Poolat Esq. is the President and Founder of Kehilat Ahavat Yisrael, a Modern Orthodox and inclusive synagogue on Long Island, which was a split in the community. She is a career legal prosecutor. She studied at Hebrew University, The Oxford Centre for Post Graduate Hebrew Studies, and Brooklyn College. Shlomit received her law degree from Hofstra Law School (1998).

Shlomit spoke on a panel at the RCA’s (Rabbinical Council of America) conference in 2016 on the necessity for inclusion of the LGBTQ community in the Orthodox world, and the impact that exclusion has caused to that community.She has been an advocate for the LGBTQ community blogging about her efforts at The Blogs: The Time of Israel and raising her daughter, along with her partner of thirteen years, within her Modern Orthodox community.

Shlomit

Practicing Sanctity as an Observant LGBTQ Jew

In 2016, the RCA issued its statement on homosexuality and its place, or really lack thereof, in the observant world. The resolution entitled “Principled and Pastoral Reflections on Sanctity and Sexuality” was a direct reaction to concerns over the legalization of gay marriage in all 50 states and the consequence of western ideals pushing up against halakha. It concluded with the following disturbing statements:

Complying with the Torah’s sexual structures can be challenging for many. We recognize that these strictures provide no permitted outlet for those with homosexual desire, thereby creating the extraordinary demand of lifelong abstinence as well as the absence of companionate love. Although some overcome these and other challenges, we deeply empathize with those who face them.

Particularly because we recognize that homosexuals often leave the Orthodox community, we are inspired by and have tremendous respect for those who seek to remain loyal to God, Torah and the pursuit of sanctity in their lives. Each of us must encourage and support all members of our families and communities to shape lives imbued with the fullness of Torah and holiness.

The essence of these words is clear. Comply, practice abstinence and remain alone while we have empathy for you. And if you choose to leave Orthodoxy, we recognize that it is because you choose to violate halacha and have no place for God, Torah or sanctity in your homosexual life. That is the message sent, as I see it. But I will not leave it at that and will elucidate further.

The fundamental problem with the resolution is twofold:

First, its premise does not begin with providing LGBTQ Jews with the benefit of the doubt. Instead, there is an assumption that LGBTQ Jews automatically violate halacha when they declare that they are LGBTQ. It absolutely sexualizes the LGBTQ Jew with the belief that declaring oneself as LGBTQ is a declaration of “I violate halacha” when it comes to sex. In citing Rav Lichtenstein’s zt”l point of LGBTQ Jews marching in the Israeli Day Parade as akin to Sabbath violators wanting to march – I say this most respectfully – Sabbath violators make a choice – we do not when it comes to being LGBTQ.

It may be desirous to remain neutral on the nature vs. nurture argument, but it is simply embarrassing in the face of what science and psychology know today about the LGBTQ condition. In fact, I would argue, that no one would choose to be gay (and observant) and go through the pain inflicted on us by rabbis, family, and community members who learn that we are LGBTQ.

Indeed, LGBTQ Jews who march in the parade in support of the state of Israel – do so with the knowledge and support for the fact that Israel is a democratic country, a haven for all Jews, and a safe place for Jews who are LGBTQ. They march in recognition of the Israeli courts that have ruled to protect LGBTQ rights in many circumstances, including within the realm of family law and while serving in the IDF. LGBTQ Jews march to show their existence, so others will not feel alone, to show a love for Israel, and march with gratitude for its moral position of recognizing that LGBTQ lives matter too.

LGBTQ Jews who march do not hold signs that say: “we are nashim mesolelot” or “I commit mishkav zachar” and as such, most respectfully, that position must fall because we are simply prejudged as violators of halakha. In fact, we too “seek to remain loyal to God, Torah and the pursuit of sanctity” in our lives, but as LGBTQ Jews. The two are not incompatible.

Second, the position that there is admiration “for Torah observant homosexuals living with the ‘extraordinary demand of lifelong abstinence as well as the absence of companionate love’” is inherently dangerous and in fact, is a death knell for us. That is wonderful for rabbis that they can stand by and admire the celibate, lonely LGBTQ Jew and hold him or her on a pedestal, but at what cost? And the answer is, the spilling of blood. Their words are directly related to the suicide rates among the LGBTQ Jews; for we cannot survive alone without the support of our families, rabbis and communities.

In surviving this predicament, I choose to turn to the words of Hashem – “it is not good for man to be alone.” So, to those who tell us to remain celibate, or closeted I simply say that your words are akin to killing us – because Hashem’s words are greater than those of any person.

So, Rabbi Kornblau turns to the privacy argument – “Obvious and unstated: a homosexual who keeps his/her desires and actions entirely private is treated as any other synagogue member.” Really, this is a clear euphemism for “the closet.” There is a reason that the word for closet in Hebrew is the same as the word for coffin (aron).

I am sure that if rabbis search within themselves, they would agree that marital relationships are not all about sex. Do these rabbis not have physical contact with their wives without leading to sex, not make financial and health decisions together without leading to sex, care for each other in sickness and in health without leading to sex? And long after age has taken over our bodies, when sex is lessened or disappears, are their souls lonely? No, they are not, because they each have a helpmate (ezer kenegdo).They have “companionate love,” something the RCA is hoping to deny us, based on a complete oversexualization of us and a lack of understanding of how we truly wish to live Torah lives as LGBTQ Jews.

Not viewing us as beings greater than our carnal sexual relationships completely ignores our existential ones. I return to the example of the sabbath violators. Why find a halakhic tool such as tinnok shenishba to allow the sabbath violators in your midst, with the belief that one day there is hope that they will embrace halacha and the rules of shabbat? Why not do say the same for us, even if you are alleging that we are engaged in impermissible sexual acts? We too will come around. Again, that presupposes and pre-judges that declaring oneself LGBTQ is akin to saying, “I violate halacha.”

The sad reality is, that homosexuals are not restricted “in proportion” to their “synagogue’s similar restrictions upon other violators of halacha.” In my own community, we have convicted felons, individuals who are arrested for visiting prostitutes, commit adultery, sabbath violators whose funds are happily accepted, and kashrut violators who happily post their pictures of their treif meals on social media. All of them are welcomed into the community shuls, lose no ceremonial rights and continue their existence as equal members of the community. Not one of them has been summarily removed. Whereas my membership was removed and where I was not permitted to join any other shuls This directive on proportionality, quite frankly, is a pipe dream.

Looking further into the resolution I noticed the following phrase “Undeterred by contemporary norms and practices that often profane sexuality, we emphasize the sanctity of the sexual component of human nature, which best thrives in privacy and modesty.” Why is the LGBTQ Jew not granted the same level of modesty (tzniut) and privacy? Why are married men and women given the benefit of the doubt that they comport with sexually permissible acts and keep hilchot niddah, while the LGBTQ Jew is assumed to violate halacha?

What is clear to me, is that rabbis know little of our daily existence, our struggles and our hopes and dreams to practice the only Judaism we know and love. “You can’t be  outwardly gay” leaves no room for discussion.

The fact that rabbis think we can approach them with the most shameful of secrets is laughable, at most times. Indeed, there is not only perceived, but real hostility, exhibited by rabbis towards members of our LGBTQ observant community. And since, like much of the Jewish world, that is a small world, word of such acts spread very quickly and simply adds to our fears. Frankly, making most rabbis unapproachable for us.

Additionally, when someone says, “Rabbi, what is the halacha in this case?” – what are they really saying to the rabbi? I propose that rabbis understand that the fundamental question behind the actual one being asked is: “What does Hashem want me to do in this case?” So please recognize and understand that your answer is one in which people searching for the correct way to practice halacha, are actually asking each learned rabbi, please speak in the name of God. At that realization, I, if I was a rabbi, I would be trembling before God; I would be thinking of the phrase “know before whom you stand” before I open my mouth. And I would choose my words very, very carefully. Unfortunately, that is not done and the hostilities from those we turn to are not perceived, they are real.

With that in mind, the position that the resolution was written “from the perspective of synagogue rabbis” with its center being a “guideline relating to homosexuality in a communal synagogue setting” is flawed at best and dangerous at worst. The variation of rabbis amongst the congregations of the US are as plentiful as the variations among all human beings. The statement leaves a clear message for each individual rabbi to do what they want in their shul. Therein lies the danger. There is no unified position on how to treat the LGBTQ Jew in their midst and so we are at the mercy of the whims of imperfect men, some who are homophobic, some who are unkind, some who are merciful, some who are uncomfortable, and some who are focused on maintaining their positions, fearing an outcry should any of their stands be taken as supportive of LGBTQ Jews.

And finally, as to the argument that Rabbi Kornblau puts forth regarding “family values” and his concern for the destruction of our civilization, I simply say, most respectfully –such language has been used in the extreme to further white supremacist ideals, to prevent marriage between blacks and whites, and today is the language used by those preaching homophobia. Again, simply seeing us as sexual beings who allegedly violate halacha, by equating our statement of being an LGBTQ person, with someone who does not wish to be an eved Hashem, and thus incapable of establishing a Jewish and observant home with Torah values, I simply say – join us for a Shabbos.

Personally, I can only say that America has improved since Loving v. Virginia and Obergefell v. Hodges, and I am grateful for that change. I have a dear family friend, who married a black convert, and they raise two beautiful frum little girls. Their “family values” are beautiful ones. I married my partner in a civil ceremony, recognizing that there is no such thing as halakhic gay marriage, and the sky has not fallen, my community has not crumbled, and in fact, ask those around us – we are building a beautiful, progressive and inclusive shul in our home town, living observant lives, and raising our observant child.

The sad reality of this debate is that I do not see a place where these two opposing views will meet. What I do see, is that you are encouraging Modern Orthodoxy to split in two. In a progressive approach to Modern Orthodoxy, women are not only seen but heard, agunot are freed, converts are supported and accepted, and LGBTQ Jews are included. I prefer that to live in that world, though I am sad to see that you are encouraging splitting the community into two. Despite that, I have hope that as we each practice Torah and mizvot, we will continue to treat each other with the mutual respect and dignity deserved by all of Hashem’s creatures.

My Journey

In the summer of 2014, I learned firsthand what it was like to contend with the power of the rabbinate. My journey began with my removal from a shul membership I had belonged to for nineteen years. I was not called to a Beis Din, let alone a rabbi’s office, or before a shul board. I was not informed of my “crimes” or even so much as told of any issue. I learned of my removal only after I had called the treasurer of our shul, asking for a membership bill that I thought he had simply forgotten to mail out. Instead, I was told to call the Rabbi. I knew something was up and so I did call.

Soon after, I met with the Rabbi, along with my partner, and was told, or rather accused, of publicly and intentionally flaunting my gayness. I had hyphenated my name and, despite being careful not to use it on any shul notices, or announcements, I had inadvertently posted my name to the shul cloud directory when I had signed up, as instructed by the shul.

Had I known I could opt out of the directory, I would have done so in compliance with the Rabbi’s wishes that my hyphenated name not appear on shul documents (other than my private tax receipts which the Rabbi had agreed to for my accountant). So, my unintentional error was accused of being done intentionally. I told the Rabbi in no uncertain terms that it was unintentional. He did not believe me and accused me of hyphenating my name to make a statement.

I was never asked before decisions were made about my membership, or rabbis were contacted at YU via the associate Rabbi, what my intentions were when I hyphenated my name; I was simply accused with no one to complain to because all was conducted in secrecy and behind my back.

In fact, I still do not know how was the question posed? Were their facts presented in my favor, or were all questions based on assumptions of intentionality on my part? Because the reality is something very different. I had taken my partner’s name not with the intent of flaunting my gayness, but rather with the intent of seeking safety under the law. However, I quickly learned from some insiders that the board had met in secret, with the Rabbis of our shul, discussing accusations based on false information. An alleged wedding ceremony and party two years earlier (2012), allegedly held at my home, had been discussed as another flaunting of my gayness. Too bad no inquiry of me was made as I would have been able to discuss the truth.

The truth being that I quietly, without frum community members present, except for my best friend, married my partner in a civil ceremony in a judge’s chambers to protect our home, assets and medical decisions from family members who under DOMA (still the law in 2012) would have greater right to those than my partner or I would have for each other in those arenas.

The alleged wedding party was in fact a Lechayim and a post construction house warming party, ten days after my civil ceremony. We were very careful not to call it a wedding or marriage reception. In fact, I still refer to her as my partner, recognizing the unease I may cause others in the frum world by referring to her as my wife. We were simply grateful to create a home filled with a love of Torah, Jewish values, such as kashrut, shabbat and hachnasat orchim; a place for sanctity, despite our sexuality.

The worst thing in all of this is that it came on the heels of our applying to Modern Orthodox high schools for our daughter. A task that became ominous and replete with emotional upheaval. At one point, at the open house of the school I wished my daughter to attend, I burst into tears worrying that rabbis out there would punish my child and prevent her from obtaining a truly Orthodox education; something I could not live with. The emotional toll was immense. I do not remember a more stressful time in my life than that first year after I was removed as a member from a shul I had loved and helped build.

Thus, I have the same problem when the resolution declared that “sensitive questions relating to the yeshiva and Jewish day school education of children being raised by homosexual partners” should be left “to rabbis and others who run such institutions.” Why? Why leave that decision to the whim of rabbis or homophobic board members who don’t want their child sitting next to the LGBTQ’s kid? Are we a people that support the punishment of innocent children for the alleged sins of their fathers and mothers? Thank God, in the end, a rabbi issued a halachik heter for our daughter to enter a Modern Orthodox high school, recognizing that she was an observant child who had only known a yeshiva education and should not be prevented from continuing that education. Those are our “family values.”

Why not issue a resolution that states that Jewish observant children, who are not born into the “normative institution through which men become fathers, women become mothers” are still “children created and loved” by their parents, mother and mother, father  and father, passing on the Torah tradition “from generation to generation?”

Do these rabbis actually mean that the laws of kashrut, shabbat, family and community minhagim, halachot relating to pesach, tefillin, tzitzit, lighting of shabbat candles, celebrating a bar or bat mitzvah, giving tzedakah, learning of Torah, gathering around the Shabbos and Yom Tov tables, dedicating oneself to the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, to the mitzva of kiddbud Av v’Em, to kvod zkeneim, to kvod habriyot, all must be lessened because our families do not look like the traditional heteronormative Jewish families?

So to all those pulpit rabbis who signed on to this resolution and who stand in front of their congregants each week speaking about the fate of the world we live in I say – to all those who hope to rally their congregants to do acts of chessed, acts of Kiddush Hashem, acts of kindness, acts of Ahavat Yisrael, acts that unite us as a people rather than tear us asunder, acts that bring light into the world not darkness – this is your time.

You just simply have to love your fellow Jew enough to see it. It is called kavod habriyot. We do not ask for anyone’s blessing. We do not ask for a change to halacha. We do not ask for a statement declaring whether this is right or wrong. We simply ask for you to love us. The way the Torah commands each of us – “love your neighbor.”

I recognize that in the Modern Orthodox Jewish world we are trying to find a way to fit a square peg into a round hole. I suggest that it is not that difficult. All you need, is a little love – Ahavat Yisrael. But know that love for one’s fellow Jews, is a platitude – one that is easy to follow when the Jew is like you. The real test of Ahavat Yisrael is in loving those that are different from you. Embracing, the single person, the widow, the orphan, the aguna, the convert, and even me – the LGBTQ observant Jew.

I am confident that as a people we will find a way to move in the right direction, guided by Ahavat Yisrael. I believe it simply by the fact that I could never have imagined a day when the RCA would have invited someone like me, and other LGBTQ Jews, to sit on a panel and  speak to their Rabbis, about our struggle to remain in the observant world. The fact that there are Rabbis in the RCA willing to do  so, gives me hope that bridges will be built. Turning to halakha, guided by love, we will succeed in finding a place for every Jew.

Judaism has three protected classes, the ger (the convert), the yatom (the orphan) and the almanah (the widow); ones most in need of protection, inclusion, and compassion. We in the LGBTQ community are like all of them: we are the “stranger” among you, even if we are from within you, we are the “orphan” as we are often orphaned by our families who abandon us, and we are the “widow,” who is the epitome of loneliness, when rabbis and members of the community exclude us. I ask each rabbi reading this to protect us, include us, and have compassion for us. Build communities with us and practice “family values” that are rooted in Ahavat Yisrael, for we cannot afford as an observant community to lose even one of us. Every one of our lives matter. Please practice and preach that, for in doing so you will be committing acts of pikuach nefesh – so that we may all live to practice Hashem’s mitzvot and find sanctity even in our sexuality.

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Rabbi Ysoscher Katz responds to Rabbi Barry Kornblau

Last week, the newspapers reported that the grandson of Rav Ovadiah Yosef, the former chief rabbi, was marrying his long term same sex partner. The grandson is gay, out, and proud. The papers reported that they were maintaining their Religious Zionist- Orthodox status. The wedding was performed by a gay Orthodox woman. How does a rabbi treat the social change from an on the ground level of reaching people? Rav Ysoscher Katz  in his vision of modern Chassidic leadership sees holiness in the religious lives of same-sex unions. This post is the first in response to a prior post by Rabbi Barry Kornblau.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz is the Chair of the Talmud department at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and the senior Rabbi of the Prospect Heights Shul. He received ordination in 1986 from Rabbi Yechezkel Roth, dayan of UTA Satmar. R. Katz studied at Brisk and Yeshivat Beit Yosef, Navaradok, for over ten years.  During the past six years, he has taught a well-attended weekly Gemara shiur on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. In addition, R. Katz writes extensively on issues pertaining to Jewish law and society. His articles have appeared in numerous places, including the Forward and Times of Israel. He also lectures widely, most recently in London, Melbourne, Liverpool, Zurich and Brooklyn. He has written for this blog before -here is his modern chassidic worldview,  and here is his view of halakhic change. 

Katz wants to reach people on the ground in a warm pastoral way without worrying about policing denominational ideology.  His only boundary is the halakha itself. Katz treats the entire prohibition as a law without a reason, a chok, therefore one does not extrapolate anything beyond a formal prohibition. This position is complemented by his treating same sex desire as due to nature.

The Orthodox community, therefore, has to understand that those in same-sex relations share “our hopes, values, and aspirations.” Katz encourages the Orthodox community should celebrate them, feel for their pain, and help them with their journeys. We should understand the tension they live under and make them feel as welcome  in our institutions by sharing their lives and life passages. Yes, we can publicly acknowledge their relationships and their life cycle events. His basic position is that we should help them as much as possible to lead holy lives of Torah and mizvot, which are their attempts at transcendence in their lives.

Katz’s theoretical framework is his concept of being a Modern Chassidic rebbe and that everyone strives for transcendent holiness. Also note that he uses the terminology of LGBTQ in lieu of the RCA’s term homosexuals.

ysoscher-katz

“And You Shall be Holy” (“קדושים תהיו”)

I. Introduction

I am grateful to Prof. Brill for giving me the opportunity to participate in this important conversation. Orthodox Jewry’s attitude toward the observant queer community is one of the most vexing religious and theological issues of our time, with ramifications far beyond the observant LGBTQ community.

This issue, rightfully or not, has become emblematic, in that, for many, the LGBTQ question is the litmus test for keeping halakha, the prism through which they explore their relationship with observance. It has come to embody the larger tension of living a religious life in the twenty-first century, where the religious observer has to constantly grapple with the dissonance created by the seeming conflict between one’s innate values and one’s deeply held beliefs. For some, the tension is so great that rather than living with such paralyzing dissonance, they resolve the conflict by letting the weight of their passions overwhelm the power of their beliefs. In the process, they often negate Judaism’s role in their spiritual development. Orthodoxy’s religious and legal stance toward matters pertaining to the Jewish LGBTQ community, therefore, affects the larger observant community, not just those identifying as queer.

Such a magnitude of consequence obligates anyone willing to explore the intricacies of these issues to tread carefully. Otherwise, they run the risk of failing God, the observant queer community, and the many others whose relationship to Torah is contingent on a halakha that is authentic but also welcoming and inclusive. Satisfying these varied imperatives is a herculean task that runs the risk of failure when relying on our own prowess. Only with a lot of סייעתא דשמיא (divine help) can such an undertaking succeed.

Preliminary Assumptions

Before I begin, allow me to share several preliminary ideas that underpin my thinking on the topic:

  1. My views neither represent any organization nor do I speak for any one institution. I speak only for myself.
  2. The dialogue between the observant LGBTQ community and the halakhic community is relatively new. Only recently has the halakhic community started to address, comprehensively and with rigor, the legal challenges raised by those among them who identify as queer.  My thoughts on the various questions raised by this exciting but fledgling phenomenon are, therefore, also new and evolving. What I am sharing now, as a result, is said לפלפולא, to generate discussion. It does not have the finality of a psak. The purpose is not to adjudicate halakha or dictate behavior. Instead, the goal is to share ideas and experiment with them.

A concurrent goal is to pry open the doors of the (real and virtual) beit midrash so that the discussion is not limited to the study hall natives but is also open to anybody who cares enough about these issues to get involved. Hopefully, this will generate a robust conversation about the issues between people on either side of the Orthodox LGBTQ divide, those who identify as queer and those who do not. Such a conversation will generate new and creative ideas which will be mutually beneficial for both, the halakhic and queer communities.

Even though psak is decided by an ordained posek, this topic requires a different paradigm of psak. The enormity of this project makes it impossible for the posek to carry the weight of such responsibility all by themselves, the burden has to be shared by the community. To employ a common Rabbinic idiom, מינך ומינאי תסתיים שמעתתא; only if we combine our intellectual resources can we arrive at decisions which are just and also correct; שמוצאות חן בעיני אלוהים ואדם, which find favor both in the eyes of God and mankind.

Additionally, by having the two communities jointly explore these challenging halakhic and theological issues, which currently breed estrangement between the observant LGBTQ and halakhic community, will we be able to minimize, if not eradicate, the mutual distrust and instead allow this newfound inter-communal relationship to grow and flourish, to the spiritual and intellectual benefit of both communities.

  1. Finally, I must make clear at the outset that I, of course, am bound by the classical reading of the oft-repeated biblical verses in Leviticus (18:22;20:13) and their concument texts in the Talmud and the codes, but at the same time recognize that these texts impose severe prohibitions on the observant queer community, impeding their ability to reach optimal happiness or experience full actualization of their identity. Those severe impositions are overwhelmingly challenging, ethically and theologically, they weigh heavily on me. I, therefore, accept halakha’s behavioral demands-grudgingly. Beneath the surface, there is a holy rage, steaming at this “seeming” injustice. Existentially, I wish these prohibitions never existed.

While an intellectually rejectionist stance toward these prohibitions seems irreverent, I actually draw inspiration from the tradition itself. In the Midrash (Sifra Kedoshim) the Rabbis advocate a reluctant stance towards religious observance in general. They state, “Do not say I do not eat pork because I am repulsed by it. Instead, say, I wish I could eat it but unfortunately the Torah prohibits it.” (אל תאמר אי אפשי בבשר חזיר, אפשי ומה אעשה שהתורה אוסרתה). Here observance is about subservience. We observe because God commanded it, not because those behaviors are compelling or beneficial to us. Furthermore, Rambam (In his introduction to tractate Avot (chapter 6) calls the prohibition against gay sex a chok, a law capriciously (descriptively speaking, not judgmentally) imposed by God, without any known reason.

Similarly, Rabbis in the Talmud (Chulin 60b), according to some interpretations, make the shocking theological claim that even God needs forgiveness for (what seems from our anthropomorphic perspective) divine transgression. Inspired by this audacious theological trope, I muse at times whether this is also true for other seeming “transgressions.” Is God remorseful (metaphorically speaking) for those prohibitions which we mortals, finite beings with severe intellectual limitations, perceive as incorrect or unjust? In the context of our dialogue, is God pained by the suffering the Torah inadvertently inflicts on our LGBTQ brothers and sisters?

(As an aside, in the nature vs. nurture debate, I am personally inclined towards the nature approach, believing that sexual orientation is informed by a person’s genetic makeup. Nonetheless, the debate is immaterial to our discussion. Whether it is nature or nurture, queerness is a genuinely experienced identity and the aforementioned Torah prohibitions impedes their ability to live a full and satisfactory life, one that is true to their innately felt sense of themselves.)

4. The Rabbis (Berachot 28b) quote a prayer R. Nechunya recited whenever he entered the beit midrash to teach. His request was twofold: a) that the Torah he teaches should be correct and not anger God, and b) that it  be morally just so that it does not upset his cherished colleagues. Rarely have these requests been more appropriate. I enter the fray with trepidation, afraid that I will, God forbid, say that which should not be said, or not say that which has to be told. Like R. Nechunya I plead אנא ה’ הושיעה נא.

II Heroism and Sanctity (kedusha)

I will start where R. Kornblau finished, with his powerful closing sentence. He writes, in conclusion of the first part of his thorough and thoughtful essay, that “finally, because in a free society homosexuals can and do leave the Orthodox fold, we must remember to take pride in homosexual spiritual heroes who remain loyal to God, Torah, and the pursuit of sanctity in their lives.” (emphasis mine) In these few words R. Kornblau managed to convey the compassion and courage this conversation deserves. He succinctly articulates two of the important tenets which deserve to be at the forefront of our conscience when interacting with the observant queer. They are indeed “spiritual heros,” courageously choosing a path filled with pain and numerous obstacles. We in the Orthodox community, in turn, owe them a huge debt of gratitude for that. Further, underlying the queer community’s passionate quest for recognition and inclusion is a desire to be given the opportunity, innately accessible to everyone outside their community, to live lives of sacredness and transcendence.

To elaborate further:

1)  Heroism

Our community should celebrate the existence of people who define themselves as gay-and-Orthodox. It was not very long ago that the gay-and-Orthodox moniker was an oxymoron. People identifying as LGBT left Orthodoxy, rejecting Yiddishkeit completely.

Today that is no longer the case. Many LGBT individuals are embracing Orthodoxy despite their sexual orientation. They love Judaism and cherish observance. Even though they oftentimes feel marginalized and isolated from halakhic communities, they nevertheless embrace the observant lifestyle. Such heroic choices are reason for gratitude and celebration. Blessed is the generation in which members of the LGBTQ community find Yiddishkeit meaningful enough to hold on to it despite of what halakha asks of them.

We in the Orthodox community need to reciprocate. Their heroism behooves us to, in return, proactively welcome them into our shuls (as full halakhic citizens: being called to the torah, invited to participate in lay-lead honors, asked to lead davening or read from the torah, or appoint them as a halakhic witness; a mere queer identity should have no impact the person’s halakhic standing), invite them to our homes, commit ourselves to working as hard as we can to minimize the pain halakha imposes on them, and, most importantly, support them as they traverse this complex and challenging journey.

Being gay and Orthodox sets individuals on a lonely journey of self-discovery. Their bodies tell them one thing and God demands from them something else. Their self-identity, as a result, is broken. Their emotions pull them in one direction while their conscience guides them in the opposite direction. Healing is hard and takes time. Our current call of duty is to accompany them as they navigate this treacherous terrain, not to reject or ostracize them. They are on a lonely, existential journey, and Orthodoxy’s responsibility is to make sure that they are not walking alone. We need to offer them acceptance, not rejection; to be supportive, not dismissive. We must do our utmost to provide a supportive environment in which they can succeed in the difficult task God has set forth for them.

2) Kedusha

In “othering” the LGBTQ community, we have at times managed to obscure the obvious: that our LGBTQ brethren and sisters are us, sharing our hopes, values, and aspirations. Primary among the values we have in common is the pursuit of kedusha; holiness.

Kedusha is the belief in human beings’ ability to infuse life with sacredness and transcendence. We all crave those moments of sacredness and transcendence. It allows us to overcome life’s vicissitudes, pain, and frustrations by enabling us to take time out from the daily grind.

When we encounter kedusha we enter into an out-of-body, transcendental space. Then, when we return to our routines, we feel vivified and refreshed. We were given a few moments of intimacy with that which is greater than we are. During those moments we feel caressed and embraced by something holy and divine; an electrifying touch whose power stays with us for a while.

Life without those momentous pauses would be unbearable. Life is difficult – for all of us. Finding a partner is hard, maintaining a relationship is difficult, making a living nowadays is extremely tough, and providing for our families is incredibly challenging. Kedusha provides moments of reprieve during those difficult pursuits. It is an island of rest in the midst of the choppy tides of life, affording us a momentary transcendental break from the misery of our routines. It is our imperative to help our friends, relatives, and dependents find those islands of sacredness.

With kedusha as an elixir, the queer community needs access to it even more than the non-queer community. The harder the life, the more important it becomes to have access to those moments of transcendental reprieve.

Making sure that every human being has optimal access to those sacred moments, and is also equipped with a spiritually rich vocabulary that will enable them to infuse those moments with transcendental significance, is, therefore, crucial. That is our role as rabbis and spiritual guides.

Those who are tasked to provide our communities with spiritual sustenance help make those sacred moments accessible by championing the pursuit of friendship and relational partnership. Human connectedness, friendship or relational, the Rabbis tell us, is a primary conduit to kedusha.

The Talmud says (Sotah 17a) איש ואשה שכינה שרויה ביניהם, God is at the center of our pursuit of intimacy. The Rabbis believed that God can be found right there, in the middle of the intimate sensual encounter between two human beings. Kedusha then, according to Chazal, is immanent. Holiness is achieved by immersing ourselves in materiality and sanctifying it.

According to the Rabbis then, our pursuit for companionship is partially fueled by our innate desire for transcendence. We search for someone we connect with deeply so that we can together generate those electrifying transcendental sparks which are ignited by the passion created when two beings mesh and become one, behaviorally, emotionally and intellectually. (While the text in Sotah mentioned above is gender-specific, the premise it articulates is gender neutral. Kedusha, according to the Rabbis, is generated whenever two people develop a deep emotional connection, which is based on a multi-tiered commonality.)

That is partially the reason those who are heteronormative pursue life-partners. Just the same, those who identify as queer, pursue relationships because they are in search of kedusha.

For observant people the parameters of a partnered relationship is, of course, circumscribed by halakha. Halakha imposes limits on the way our emotional intimacy can be expressed physically. While there might perhaps be more severe restrictions on the way those who identify as queer can give physical expression to their emotional and sensual intimacy, the limitations exist on a common continuum. For our purposes, however, these restrictions are irrelevant. Every religious person needs to navigate the impositions imposed by halakha on the physical aspect of their relationship, the emotional and sensual aspects, however, are not circumscribed at all. Every person, queer or not, is entitled to a loving and intimate companionship. Its pursuit is sacred and should be celebrated and encouraged. All the while we must emphasizes that for the observant every relationship, heteronormative or queer, is bound by the limitations imposed upon it by halakha.

III. Law and Spirit: the RCA and Myself

The belief in the centrality of kedusha nourished by relationships and human connectedness, is also why I instinctually had a different reaction than the RCA to the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage. It, in the process also reminded me why I am Modern Chassidish and not Modern Orthodox.

The RCA, undoubtedly, needs to be applauded for their thoughtful statement. They have articulated a nuanced approach which advances the cause of the observant queer community, by urging us to make our homes more welcoming and our shuls more inclusive. Those of us pushing for greater acceptance are building on the courageous stance the RCA took, relative to the norms of the time their statement was written. They set the tone for Orthodox discourse on this issue. We amplify that voice and expand upon it.  My Chassidic theological ethos, however, puts me on a different pastoral path.

There are many theological differences between Chassidim and non-Chassidim, but the defining distinction is this: their views differ greatly over the role of halakha in the religious life. The Modern Orthodox Jew experiences the world predominantly through the prism of Halakha, while the Modern Chasid’s view is more encompassing. Halakha informs the Modern Orthodox rabbi’s judicial thinking and is also what inspires his pastoral passion. It is also the primary barometer he or she uses to determine the validity of one’s life and legitimacy of one’s choices. On the other hand, for the Modern Chasid, halakha is merely a framework, a way of life which creates an infrastructure in which the religious persona can grow and flourish, but he or she allows for a broader mix of theological considerations to inform his or her religious attitude toward others.

These differences have significant bearings on how members of each group reacts to the Supreme Court decision. It also informs the way their religious authorities understand their pastoral role when responding to this legislative landmark. The RCA and the general Orthodox leadership’s reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision, has been primarily halakhisist. Even the pastoral care, while kind and extremely sensitive, its outer boundaries are, nevertheless, proscribed by halakha. A spiritual leader guided by a Chassidic ethos reacts differently. They understand that they need to supplement the rabbinic admonishing voice with the soft supporting voice of a Chassidic rebbe. Currently the observant queer community needs just that-a rebbe.

Thankfully we are blessed with numerous rabbis opining about the Supreme Court’s decision and its implications for our community. What we are desperately missing is the voice of a rebbe. Their clerical roles on this issue vary considerably. The rabbi’s role is to judge; the rebbe’s to provide boundless pastoral care. Halakhic punctiliousness matters to the rebbe too, but it is not a prerequisite for helping someone navigate treacherous halakhic and spiritual battlefields.

While the Chassidic theologian whose pastoral devotion is not contingent on their interlocutor’s punctiliousness draws on many traditional sources, one Talmudic source, in particular, comes to mind.

The Talmud (Berachot 63a) lauds the criminal who pleads for divine support before committing a crime. This provocative teaching intimates that there can be spiritual significance even in those moments when an individual’s life is perhaps not perfectly in consonance with halakha’s religious prescripts.

This audacious text endorses a robust and self-sustained spirituality which is not contingent on one’s standing in the eyes of halakha. The rebbe is the one charged with facilitating this pluralistic spiritual embrace.

The rebbes should be the observant queer community’s spiritual chaperones. They should walk alongside them on their arduous journey of reconciliation between their religious convictions and their sexual predisposition. The rebbe helps them sanctify this tortuous path.

A beautiful story is told about Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchov. Once when walking down the street he noticed a follower reciting his daily prayers while oiling the wheels of his carriage. Instead of reacting with opprobrium, he set aside his legalistic discomfort, turned towards the heavens, and said: “God, look at your wonderful people! They love praying so much that even while they are oiling the wheels they still turn to you in prayer and supplication.” As a Chasid, he allowed his pastoral sensitivity to trump his judicial sensibilities. Instead of scolding the Chasid for his legalistic shortcomings, he chose to sanctify the seemingly transgressive behavior, believing that such a stance would lead to greater spiritual growth.

The legalistic voice has dominated the Orthodox public sphere, but our religious queer brothers and sisters deserve to have the harshness of moral certitude dulled by the tenderness of spiritually infused pastoral care. History will determine how the journey of Orthodox homosexuality will turn out. The Modern Chasid’s role is to ensure that this journey, which will hopefully lead people toward greater religious observance, is as sacred as it can be. I hope that the important voice of the rebbe will soon be added to the cacophony of religious voices on this issue. Our gay brethren need it and deserve nothing less.

I, for one, very much cherish being part of that team. Although I study and practice halakha, I, for the most part, leave the legalism of this particular issue for my rabbinic colleagues. My Modern Chassidish soul leads me in a different direction, predominantly gravitating toward the pastoral angle of this complex issue. Here is where I encounter the divinity embedded in every human being, regardless of deed, creed, or sexual orientation.

My divergence from the RCA approach, however, is complementary, not contradictory, reflecting the rich diversity of our theological tradition.

With God’s help we will go from strength to strength, continuing to create together an Orthodoxy that is ever more inclusive while, at the same time, remaining unequivocally devout. Erring on either side is equally transgressive. Being too stringent is no less abominable than not being stringent enough.

ויהי נועם ה’ אלוהינו עלינו

The blog format does not allow for further explication but I wanted to briefly mention two additional points which I hope to explore in greater depth in the appropriate fora.

  1. If we are honest with ourselves we would have to acknowledge that the current halakhic stance towards the LGBTQ community is by default discriminatory. There is a group of people who for no fault of their own is denied that which is innate to all of us; the ability to pursue, within the confines of halakha, a full fledged and uninhibited emotional life. The community in general, and those of us charged with facilitating halakhic observance in particular, therefore, need to ask the observant queer community for forgiveness for this indiscretion. Granted, the discrimination is sanctioned by our understanding of halakha but that is not exculpatory. A justified transgression is still a sin. The recipient of that discriminatory standard is not hurt any less because it is prescribed. The fact that according to Orthodox understanding of halakha those exclusionary practices have the divine imprimatur does not make it less discriminatory. While no individual is guilty of any crime, the community as a whole needs collective expiation. Our value system is one which inadvertently causes pain to numerous people.
  2. An added benefit to halakha’s embrace of the observant queer community is that the relationship tremendously enriches our halakhic discourse. The questions raised allow us to explore areas of halakha that have previously been ignored or overlooked. This is not the place to share the specifics, but being the rabbi of a shul with a significant LGBTQ population has given me the privilege to explore practical and conceptual angles of halakha unique to this community. Aside from engaging in halakha and helping interlocutors navigate the complexity of halakha, particularly as it pertains to the LGBTQ community, the process also constantly sheds new light on existing norms and established practices, outside of the queer purview. Halakha in its entirety is nourished and enhanced by these new encounters.

Rabbi Barry Kornblau on the RCA’s “On Sanctity and Sexuality”

If I were writing an article on the relationship of institutional Modern Orthodoxy to the changes of this era, I would focus on the November 29, 2016 RCA document entitled  “Principled and Pastoral Reflections on Sanctity and Sexuality,” which mainly concerns same-sex relationships. This pastoral reflection opens up to a wide range of the changes to Modern Orthodox and to society of this decade. It can be used to focus a discussion of Orthodox support for the court cases of Hobby Lobby and Masterpiece Bakery along with the Evangelical churches as well as their political views. The document’s antecedent was the June 2015 Supreme Court decision Obergefell v. Hodges granting a fundamental right for same-sex marriages, I made a mental note that June night, and actually written notes to myself in the following weeks, on how the decision was going to have a strong backlash among conservative religious positions and define religion in the upcoming years.

Recently, Rabbi Barry Kornblau posted the 2016 RCA document on Facebook to elicit a discussion of what he thought was an important document. Over the next few days, Kornblau fielded a thread of more than 500 comments, most of them highly critical. He defended the document in detail and explained why he rejected all the criticism of it. Behind his answers, he displayed a clear vision of the “family values” theology of the document. From his thorough answers, we have a richer understanding of one of the creators of the current worldview of the RCA and institutional Modern Orthodoxy. Hence, I asked him to write up the thread as a blog post.

There will be several responses to the post to elicit a full discussion.  The first one will be by Rabbi Ysoscher Katz and the second by Shlomit Metz Poolat Esq. others will follow in the course of the next weeks. You may not agree with either side in this discussion, but it will articulate the current positions.

Barry Kornblau is graduate of Yale College where he studied music theory and music composition, and was ordained by RIETS.  He has served as rabbi of the Young Israel of Hollis Hills – Windsor Park since 2003, and served on the rabbinic staff of the Rabbinical Council of American from 2005-2017.He is the rabbinic adviser to Canfei Nesharim, an Orthodox environmental group.

kornblau

The acceptance of same-sex relationships in American society has been a major social change, which has been rapid speeding up in the last decade. In July 2010, a broad coalition of Modern Orthodox rabbis issued a Statement of Principles affirming tolerance and acceptance of Orthodox Jews with a homosexual orientation. The 2010 document rejected conversion therapy and encouraged hearing their emotion distress. There was a variety of other statements issued at the time, see here for more details.

For some background to this discussion from 1970 to 2000, there is a bibliography of Orthodox positions by Rabbi Uri Cohen and a review essay by the historian Yaakov Ariel on these decades. There are also many articles written by psychologists working in the field. Many of these sources have been collected on the website of the Orthodox psychologist Rabbi Dr. Bin Goldman.

The 2016 RCA document was done explicitly without reference to prior statements, such as the 2010 statement, but as their own vision of policy and society. This statement reflects the input of a variety of voices. Rabbi Kornblau’s conclusions are as follows:

They concluded that Orthodox homosexuals should be empathized with in “the struggles, loneliness, and alienation and communal marginalization. They also concluded, “Personal abuse, by words or actions, is forbidden.”  They regret that “some Orthodox rabbis and Jews use hostile language towards homosexuals in our communities.”

However, on the other hand, Rabbi Kornblau stated, “Halachah plays play hard ball with its adherents, insisting that they give up their lives before violating its eternal prohibitions against sexual immorality, idolatry, and murder.” The only halakhic position from an Orthodox perspective is heroic celibacy.

They also reject “personal identity based on sexuality”.  Kornblau notes that this excludes “gay” as an “identity” from a Torah perspective, and that a Torah Jew’s only “identity” is “servant of God”.  If some are not comfortable with that, then communal splintering may result.

They still sanction reparative therapy when an homosexual willingly participates in it, and when performed by a “licensed and trained practitioner” as sanctioned by local laws.

There is to be no public acknowledgement of same-sex relationships. “Regardless of the couple’s personal happiness, love, or mitzvot they perform together, there can be no “mazal tov”, no kiddush, no celebration, no joint listing on a membership roll…”
An abstinent homosexual has the same rights and duties as any other synagogue member, but an active homosexual may be restricted by a community’s rabbi from congregational leadership or ritual activity in proportion to other similar restrictions in his community””

What struck me most about Rabbi Kornblau’s presentation on Facebook and now in this article is his worked out theology of culture and society, not necessarily shared by all his RCA colleagues, but nevertheless reflective of a comprehensive worldview of how gay rights, as part of an atomized family, are opposed to the traditional family.

Rabbi Kornblau relies on works such as Carle Zimmerman’s Family and Civilization (1947) as accurate empirical data, as a reliable guide to history, and as useful to him for reflecting on the Torah’s viewpoint. Zimmerman’s work is a Spengler-influenced work showing the decline of the greatness of Western culture when the domestic family breakdown. Zimmerman revives the position of the 18th century author Edward Gibbons who famously wrote that the Roman Empire declined due to homosexuality. Zimmerman credits the strong families of the Barbarians as the cause of their victory over the decadent families of Rome and

Conservative and Evangelical authors treat this 70-year-old work as monumental and prophetic, especially that he advocates strict divorce laws, and the rejection of homosexuality in order to maintain Western greatness.  Therefore, many conservative op-eds, books, and editorials cite Zimmerman as the part of their reason for banning gay rights. For example, Rod Dreher made extensive use of Zimmerman in his book The Benedict Option in which he cautions Christians about having too much to do with society in that it is currently in decline from its values. For Dreher in this op-ed, and elsewhere, warns that “Civilization depends on the health of the traditional family.” Dreher claims that: “The late Harvard sociologist Carle C. Zimmerman believed it was true, but he also knew why. In 1947, he wrote a massive book to explain why latter-day Western civilization was now living through the same family crisis that presaged the fall of classical Greece and Rome… Religions that lack a strong pro-fertility component don’t survive over time, he observed; nor do cultures that don’t have a powerfully natalist religion.” (For Dreher on homosexuality and the Evangelical statements- see here and then here.) For Dreher, the West is unlikely to head Zimmerman’s call. But, Dreher thinks that those who do hear the call are traditionalist Catholics, “full-quiver” Protestants, “Orthodox Jews, pious Muslims and other believers who reject modernity’s premises.

Rabbi Kornblau has heard a similar call and used Zimmerman as a tool to understand Torah. He has little use for Zimmerman’s decline of Western civilization thesis but finds some of the ideas useful to explain the Rabbinic policy position by contrasting the atomised family structure with traditional family values.  Kornblau thinks: “Orthodox Jewry must explicitly articulate the details of the Torah’s “domestic” familial and societal vision, argue for its virtues in positive terms, and seek to embody and make visible that vision as much as possible.” For him, by itself the RCA’s statement “does little to win over and retain young and other Orthodox Jews immersed in an ever more “atomistic” society and its (unstated) assumptions and approach to sexual and family life and who therefore challenge the Torah’s views.” Kornblau concludes that the stakes are high and that we are playing for the very future of the community.

On Sanctity and Sexuality- Rabbi Barry Kornblau

In 2016, the membership of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) voted upon and formally adopted a resolution, “Principled and Pastoral Reflections on Sanctity and Sexuality,” to articulate some of its perspectives on changing sexual mores of our times in general, and regarding homosexuality in particular.   I am pleased to have been asked to share some perspectives into its genesis, purposes, and significance.

Since I have never been, nor am I now, an official spokesperson for the RCA, my remarks here are those of an individual, an American Orthodox rabbi, an RCA member and former employee; indeed, this essay has intentionally not been reviewed by any RCA official prior to  publication.

Prophecy is for fools, and mores regarding these and other matters within the Orthodox Jewish community and in Western society as a whole continue to change rapidly.  Nonetheless, I believe that the positions set forth in the RCA’s resolution can and will serve as an enduring intellectual and practical framework for a stable, honest, and mutually respectful relationship between Orthodox homosexuals loyal to halachah and Orthodox synagogue communities in contemporary Western cultures.

Genesis of an RCA Resolution about Homosexuality

Established more than 80 years ago, the RCA is the primary voice of the English-speaking, Modern Orthodox rabbinate, particularly those who serve as synagogue rabbis.  I had the privilege for a dozen years of serving on the RCA’s staff, working on a wide variety of matters until my departure, without rancor, in 2017. In particular, I worked closely with each year’s Resolutions Committee.  Adopted by direct vote of all its members, RCA’s annual resolutions are a primary vehicle through which it expresses views about a wide variety of contemporary matters.

The genesis of the “Sexuality and Sanctity” resolution was straightforward.  For decades, the RCA expressed its support (e.g., here, here, and here) for the nuclear family, and its opposition to increasing societal acceptance of homosexual relationships  In 2015, the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges decision of the US Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in all 50 states.  For this and other reasons, the 2016 Resolutions Committee – chaired by Rabbi Chaim Strauchler and including Rabbis Jeffrey Bienenfeld, David Brofsky, Jerold Isenberg, and Menachem Schrader – and others within the RCA recognized that the time had come for it to address comprehensively some of the challenges posed by changing societal attitudes towards homosexuality to Orthodox communities.

The resolution incorporates the input of people within and without the RCA, including men and women, young and old, lay and clergy, homosexual and heterosexual, Jew and non-Jew.  It underwent countless revisions, including a complete rewrite, in response to feedback received.  Each word and phrase was selected carefully, and the entire document is intended to be read closely; my present remarks assume the reader has done so.

The resolution reflects the diverse personal and professional experiences, policies, and general attitudes of RCA rabbis regarding homosexuality within their communities; their personal and professional experiences with homosexuals, their friends, and family; and, their understandings of the faith challenge that homosexuality poses to young Orthodox Jews and others who struggle to understand this Torah law.  Other American and Israeli rabbinic statements about homosexuality, including Orthodox ones by ad-hoc and other groups of rabbis, played little role in its drafting.

At its center is a four-point guideline relating to homosexuality in Orthodox synagogue settings.  It does not address sensitive questions relating to the yeshiva and Jewish day school education of children raised by homosexuals, leaving these matters to rabbis and others who run such institutions.

While understandable to all readers, the resolution’s language and conceptual categories are those of its primary audience, the Orthodox Jewish community.  It does not engage with the views of other Jewish denominations or non-Jewish faiths.

Finally, the precise relationship between Obergefell and related legal developments and the first amendment of the US Constitution remains an active subject of litigation, regarding which the RCA and other conservative religious groups continue to take stands.  Given its orientation towards synagogue-based communal life, the resolution briefly notes but does not delve into those issues. Instead, this statement about the theological and pastoral issues facing Orthodox synagogue communities complements the focus on legal issues that are the appropriate focus of many on the religious political right.

A Public, Positive Attitude Towards Sexuality; and, Rabbinic Confessions

Western culture has made overt discussion sexuality culturally omnipresent.  In the spirit of eit la’asot (“it is time to act for the Lord, as they have negated Your Torah”), this resolution sets aside traditional reticence to discuss sexual matters openly in favor of forthright, public analysis.

Rejecting ascetic rabbinic attitudes towards sexuality which persist among some in the Orthodox world even today, the RCA also openly embraces as normative a bold, modern view of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l that “our [positive] commitment to sexuality” is “partly carnal, partly existential”- i.e., that the physical pleasure of marital relations and the relationship-binding aspect of marital relations are positive.

The resolution also includes two remarkable rabbinic confessions.  First, the RCA “recognizes and regrets” Orthodox homosexuals and their families widely reject its rabbis.  Moreover, it “recognizes and regrets” that such individuals find “perceived and real hostilities” in Orthodox communities.

Three Contextualizations

The resolution contextualizes homosexuality in three ways.

First, it notes that homosexuality has existed in human societies throughout history.  This simple acknowledgment underlies its dispassionate analysis, tone, and language, all of which contrast strongly with the overwrought, charged language (“toeiva marriage”, etc) common in other contemporary Orthodox Jewish writing on this topic.  It also forms the basis of the resolution’s open respect for Orthodox homosexuals who struggle with the challenges posed to them by the Torah’s prohibitions.

This contextualization also minimizes the importance of the complex nature vs. nurture debate regarding the origin of homosexual desire – which the resolution intentionally omits.  These views, in turn, undermine the primary impetuses favoring reparative therapy, which the RCA sanctions only when an homosexual willingly participates in it, and when performed by a “licensed and trained practitioner”.  The availability of such licensed practitioners varies by local law.  They also reject the related theological view, held by some Orthodox rabbis, that God could not have created people with inborn homosexual desire since a good God would not test people in such a difficult way.  This accords with the RCA’s rejection, in other settings, of specific claims about how God runs His world.

Second, the resolution places some of the challenges faced by Orthodox homosexuals in the context of challenges and failures experienced by all Jews.  This is why, for example, the resolution devotes entire paragraphs to recognizing the exceedingly demanding nature of the Torah’s sanctified sexual restrictions for all Jews, and to recognizing the difficultly of fulfilling these requirements.  Although not mentioned in the resolution, consider heterosexual Orthodox Jews’ violations of halachic sexual requirements, including masturbation, yichud, negiah, improper gazing and pornography, violations of mikveh/nida laws, extramarital sex, sexual abuse or incest, the use of prostitutes, adultery, etc.

Third, the resolution contextualizes some experiences of Orthodox homosexuals by including them alongside “the struggles, loneliness, and alienation experienced by those who feel marginalized from the Jewish community and from Jewish life. This includes those who do not participate, for various reasons, in heterosexual marriage with children, or who believe that they do not fit into our communities which prioritize heterosexual marriage, children, and family.”  This is a large number of people, including some single and divorced people, childless couples, single parents, and widows and widowers.  At the same time, it specifically acknowledges and expresses admiration for Torah observant homosexuals living with the “extraordinary demand of lifelong abstinence as well as the absence of companionate love”.  Public recognition of these painful realities by a major Orthodox rabbinic organization is remarkable.

Eternal Prohibitions

The above points notwithstanding, the resolution insists that the halachic prohibitions against homosexual acts neither can nor will ever be reinterpreted or delimited by Orthodox rabbis in such a way as to permit them.  The “eternity of the mitzvot of the Torah” which are “not subject to reinterpretation” precludes, for example, historicizing the Torah’s prohibition in order to nullify or limit its scope.  This rejects the argument, for example, that the Torah’s prohibition applies only to once-common, domineering homosexual acts and its corollary that contemporary non-domineering and consensual homosexual sexual acts can therefore be permitted.

Permanent prohibition also explains why the resolution does not address whether these prohibitions are rationally understandable (and if so, what their reasons might be) or are rather a Divine mystery (chok) which a religious person obeys without understanding.  Regardless of rationale or Orthodox rabbinic interest (or lack thereof) in changing them, they are not subject to change.

Similarly, the resolution does not relate to the halachic distinctions between different types of homosexual behavior (male vs. female homosexual sex, different male homosexual acts, etc.) because, such distinctions notwithstanding, all homosexual acts have always been and always will be halachically prohibited.

A public rabbinic statement is neither a written responsum nor an oral reply to an individual’s personalized inquiry, where such distinctions might possibly be relevant. (“Rabbi, I am incapable of refraining from all homosexual sexual activity but wish to minimizes the degree of prohibition. How shall I proceed?”; “Rabbi, we are, in fact, a gay couple. Can/should we sit next to one another in shul?”; “Does the prohibition of yichud/seclusion or negiah/touch apply for me, a homosexual, with members of my sex?”)

Halachah plays play hard ball with its adherents, insisting that they give up their lives before violating its eternal prohibitions against sexual immorality, idolatry, and murder.  For example, if a thug threatens to kill a Jewish man unless he has sexual relations with a married Jewish woman, then the commandments to sanctify and not desecrate God’s Holy Name obligate him to allow the thug to kill him instead of committing adultery with her.  This duty for a Jew to sacrifice his life to uphold the Torah’s sexual prohibitions applies even if the married woman and her husband were to beg the threatened man to have relations with her in order to save his life.  This is true, as well, were the thug to threaten the Jewish man with death unless he has homosexual intercourse, even with a willing man.

A Deep Philosophical/Religious Conflict.

There is a complete contrast between the above halachic view and the dominant secular view in the contemporary West regarding homosexual sex. The prevailing Western view is basically that state laws and hence, to a great degree, morality, justly impinge on individuals’ otherwise absolute autonomy only when one person’s action damages another person; this is J. S. Mill’s famous ‘Harm Principle’.  Particularly in the years since the sexual revolution in the West, this has come to mean permitting – and eventually celebrating – all consensual activities between adults that do not harm others.  Hence, this view strongly affirms gay identity, gay legal rights, and gay marriage and offers no reason to oppose it.

Given the acculturation of many Modern Orthodox Jews who strongly embrace Western culture in so many other ways, it is easy to see why many have adopted Western moral reasoning in this area. Hence, some contemporary Orthodox Jews are not only homosexual (as has always been the case), but also personally identify as gay, in the contemporary Western sense of that term which includes definitional aspects of personal identity, pride and public assertion of that personal identity and group affiliation, political activism and cultural and legal advocacy for rights implicit in such an identity, and more.  Along with many heterosexual Orthodox Jewish allies, gay people are “facts on the ground” in many Orthodox families, social circles, institutions, and communities.  Many young Orthodox Jews have never known a world without these realities.

The resolution recognizes all of this, even devoting an entire paragraph to a detailed history of the contemporary gay rights movement.  However, it also explains why Orthodox halachah can never accommodate these facts while remaining true to its essence, which is the quest for kedushah (sanctity, as defined by God’s revelation) in every area of life.

Liberty for a Torah Jew is not, as it is in the West, freedom from outside coercion in order to accomplish one’s own purposes in life.  Rather, it is the freedom to adopt, and then freely act upon, the only religiously legitimate “identity” that exists from the perspective of the Torah’s truths: the complete identification and subordination of one’s self as an eved Hashem (servant of God) who happily and wholeheartedly seeks to fulfill His Will.

Each of one’s opinions or traits – whether inborn or consciously adopted (including sex, race; intellectual, physical, artistic, or medical or physical conditions; political, socioeconomic, national, and cultural affiliations) – is acceptable in a Torah perspective only to the extent it does not contradict and is entirely subordinate to one’s only ‘true’ identity as an eved Hashem.

This is why the RCA’s resolution rejects “founding personal identity upon sexual desire” and hence the category of “gay” (in the cultural sense defined above) as an independent “identity”.  They cannot be recognized by halachah or by Orthodox institutions and their representatives – even as it recognizes, as a human “fact on the ground”, the equally true reality that beloved Orthodox homosexuals exist, including some who identify as gay.

Guidelines for its Communal Negotiation

Negotiating these conflicts is the heart of the RCA resolution, its four-point guideline.  Building upon the three contextualizations mentioned above, it provides a framework for proper relations between Orthodox synagogue communities and their homosexual members.  It achieves this with a fourth contextualization: namely, noting how Orthodox communities in free societies relate to all Jews whose personal conduct may not “fully reflect Torah standards of sanctity” in a variety of other areas (Shabbat, mikveh, financial dealings, kashrut), and applying such standards to homosexuals.

Some applications of these guidelines include:

  • “Personal abuse, by words or actions, is forbidden.” Unfortunately, this statement is necessary due to the aforementioned commonplace reality that some Orthodox rabbis and Jews use hostile language towards homosexuals in our communities.
  • “Torah institutions and their lay and rabbinic leaders must not, in any public venue, sanction or acknowledge any relationship or marriage between two individuals prohibited to marry by Jewish law; this includes homosexual relationships and marriages.” This is similar to Orthodox synagogues’ existing practices regarding, say, a marriage between a member and a non-Jew, or a marriage between a kohein and a woman prohibited to him. Regardless of the couple’s personal happiness, love, or mitzvot they perform together, there can be no “mazal tov”, no kiddush, no celebration, no joint listing on a membership roll; indeed, no public mention of such a relationship at all.
  • “[B]ehavior or words [that] demonstrate public disregard for halachic strictures against homosexual behavior or romance, or who seek communal approval or acknowledgment of the same” is “unacceptable [and] has no place in Orthodox institutions.” This is similar to Orthodox synagogues’  welcome of Jews who do not observe Shabbat in their private lives while concurrently prohibiting them from smoking or using their cell phones in shul on Shabbat: individuals are welcome, public non-halachic behavior or words are not.
  • Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l made precisely this point in remarks about New York City’s annual Israel parade: “The mechallelei Shabbat [Sabbath violators] of America don’t want to march in the parade under the banner of “mechallelei Shabbat of America” – they… march… as the Rotary Club, the junior high school of Great Neck, or whatever, and that will pass muster [with Orthodox groups who will march with them] – they will not flaunt. The homosexual community today has created such a ferment because it is very aggressive.”
  • An abstinent homosexual has the same rights and duties as any other synagogue member, may discharge communal duties on behalf of the congregation, and may serve as a communal leader. Rabbis or others must not interrogate individuals who keep their sexual desires and actions entirely private.
  • An active homosexual may be restricted by a community’s rabbi from congregational leadership or ritual activity in proportion to the synagogue’s restrictions, if any, upon other violators of halachah (Shabbat, the many sexual prohibitions list above, or kashruth).
  • “Many other circumstances are more complex, requiring wise, individualized decision by a community’s rabbi.” The complexities of communal life, in this area and many others, are beyond the scope of a resolution, and are subject, like other local circumstances, to individualized rulings by a synagogue’s rabbi.

The above applications and interpretations of the resolution’s text are mine.  If other responsible readers think they mean something else, so be it.

Although unrelated to communal settings, it is unfortunately necessary to emphasize that every human being is made in God’s Image, and that every Jew is one of His beloved children.  A person with same-sex desire is neither disgusting nor contagious.  Harassment, threats, sexual or physical assault, etc, against such individuals are outrageous.  (How awful that reality requires the recitation of obvious facts!)  Family members and friends must not cut off relations with such individuals but, even more than other Jews, must love them.

Finally, the vast corpus of halachah applies fully to homosexuals.  Even if they transgress sexual prohibitions regularly, they must fulfill all other mitzvot; an “all or nothing” approach to mitzvah fulfillment is not the Torah way.

Orthodoxy and Homosexuals: Plenty of Work Ahead

Much work lies ahead regarding this defining challenge for Orthodoxy in this generation.  Orthodox Jews and institutions must emphasize that the only legitimate identity for its members, young and old, is ovdei Hashem (servants of God)for whom sanctity as defined by God’s Truth and Will, not contemporary Western morals, is its lodestar in every area of personal, communal, and national life.

Some homosexuals and their Orthodox allies must realize that gay identity and pride cannot be incorporated with integrity into Orthodox synagogue communities, and, in some cases, abandon fruitless thinking about the possibility of changing unambiguous halachic prohibitions.

Some rabbis and communities need to cultivate a deep understanding of the profound, existential challenges faced by sincerely pious Jewish homosexuals.  In this way, instead of homosexuals experiencing abuse and discomfort among their own communities and clergy, they can find in them the warm, loving home they, like all Jews, profoundly need.

We all must humbly recall the degree to which we all fail in striving towards sanctity and so act and speak with love, kindness, and decency towards others who may also sometimes fail as we do.  Finally, because in free society homosexuals can and do leave the Orthodox community, Orthodox Jews must learn to take quiet pride in our community’s contemporary heroes – homosexuals who, despite all the struggle and pain required to “subdue their desire” (cf. Pirkei Avot 4:1), nonetheless remain loyal to God, Torah, and the pursuit of sanctity in their lives.

Some Additional, Personal Perspectives

Until now, I have elaborated upon the RCA’s resolution while hewing to its approach to the best of my ability.  Below, I offer my own perspectives about the issues at hand.

Changes in the West?

Attitudes and laws regarding homosexuality in Western countries, including in Israel which is quite gay-friendly overall, have changed dramatically and rapidly in the past decades.  In principle, political, philosophical, scientific, or other critiques or shifts within the West could reverse those changes, leading to more restrictions on gays, and pleasing some conservative people, including some religious conservatives.

I believe that such changes are very unlikely because the position of gays in society is founded upon basic ideas of contemporary Western moral and legal reasoning as a whole.  The primacy of the individual and his/her self-identity, freedom of personal belief and action, the language of rights and equality, and so on – these are foundational for the entire West, not only gay rights.  Reversing progress made by gays would require a fundamental moral reordering of the West, signs of which are presently absent.

Once the gay rights movement adopted an equality- and rights-based approach, protests against the “normalization” of the “gay lifestyle” within American and Western society by numerous conservative groups, including the RCA, had no chance of long-term success.

I remember back in the early 1990s when gay rights were heating up as a political issue in the US, a middle-aged, secular, Jew with conservative political views told me that he opposed such rights.  I replied that his opposition made no sense from his secular perspective, that gay rights would surely win the day, and that his opposition was either a matter of personal discomfort or leftover Biblical sensibilities that, inconsistently, he had yet to expunge from his worldview.  I’ve made similar points from the pulpits of Orthodox synagogues where I’ve served, often to the consternation of conservative congregants.

Nowadays, young people of all political and religious persuasions who live within the West’s moral framework increasingly accept and celebrate gay rights and marriage as unremarkable and fundamental.

A Civilizational-Familial Framework-Carle Zimmerman

One longstanding, unsuccessful argument against “gay rights” is to favor “family values” which assert that “marriage is one man and one woman”, that children are best reared by their biological parents, one of each sex.   A typical rejoinder is that plenty of contemporary gays embody “family values” by marrying and even raising children, often adopted ones.  Besides, how does gay marriage damage heterosexual marriage?  The argument continues from there, likely in ways familiar to many readers.

In thinking about that dispute, I find helpful the historical perspective and analytic framework of Carle Zimmerman, in his book “Family and Civilization”.  In enormous detail, he describes changing modalities of family life (primarily in the West, with references to other civilizations, as well) from ancient Greece through the mid-20th century.  It describes three primary approaches to family life, the “trustee”, “domestic”, and “atomistic” family systems.

The “trustee” family system is dominant when central authority and institutions are weak.  Most societal powers and functions, include marriage formation and child-rearing, reside in extended tribal families which maintain strong identities across multiple generations.  (Early Greek, early Roman, and Europe of the “Dark Ages” included such families.)

Often after great social conflict, the “domestic” family system develops from a “trustee” system.  It thrives in somewhat more commercial settings.  Significant societal powers and functions reside in centralized institutions and laws.  Autonomous strong nuclear families, consisting of a distantly related husband and wife and their children, constitute the foundation of society and its institutions, and are supported by its laws, customs, and mores.  (Later Greek, Roman, and Renaissance Europe saw the flourishing of this family type.)

In recent centuries, contemporary Western society, like late Greek and Roman societies before it, champions an increasingly “atomistic” conception of family  Populous cities and centers arise, and societal power resides almost entirely in a centralized state which concerns itself primarily with individual residents and their mutual relations.  The transition from “domestic” family structures is more gradual and less traumatic than transitions from the “trustee” to “domestic” family systems.  “Domestic”-style marriage continues to exist but declines in status, duration, and strength as more flexible and varied household structures flourish, and exist primarily to fulfill the needs of its individual members.  Similarly, previously unaccepted, more permissive sexual activities (specifically including, as Zimmerman documents in chapters 15 and 16, homosexual sex) become increasingly prevalent and, eventually, culturally normative.

Zimmerman argues that this “atomistic” family structure is too weak a foundation, over the long term, to sustain a civilization.  Describing “the decay of the family into extended atomism”, he argues that “the disease is not divorce, adultery, homosexuality, etc.  These are but symptoms of the final decay of the basic postulates upon which the ‘human’ part of society is built.”  Those “basic postulates” and “fundamental value systems…upon which society is built” include the supposition that “basic human relations are considered as products of a system of values coming from the infinite world…”

Zimmerman’s analysis further allows one to see how essentially ineffective, it is, in the context of our ever more “atomistic” society to advocate for “family values” that are rooted in a minority “domestic” family system of homosexual sex.

The RCA resolution makes a similar claim: “We reassert our belief in the central importance and value of monogamous heterosexual marriage as the foundational norm of civilization.”  This position may provide a deeper meaning for the midrash [Bereishit Rabbah 26:9] that connects the celebration or legalization of male homosexual marriage with the world’s destruction.  (The Seven Noahide laws which embody halachah’s requirements for non-Jewish society also prohibit and punish homosexual sex and couplings.)

Generations from now, future historians of Western civilization will debate the degree to which such current predictions were correct.  Regardless, I think such claims are definitional and true regarding the civilization the Torah seeks to foster for the Jewish nation, and what it expects, to a lesser degree, from non-Jew nations, as well.  I cannot see how halachah and the Torah’s values, overall, can conform with an “atomistic” family system and its worldview.  Instead, I think its overall vision for Jewish families and society is essentially a “domestic” system that also includes elements of the “trustee” system which likely characterized settled, agrarian tribal life during much of the Biblical period.

I hope to develop these ideas fully on another occasion, and to respond some obvious potential criticisms about them.  But for now, note that the RCA resolution’s language asserts that precisely this view is normative: “Heterosexual marriage is a critical foundation of Torah law and society built upon many factors, including the differences between men as a group and women as a group. It is the normative institution through which men become fathers, women become mothers, children are created and loved, and the Torah tradition is passed from generation to generation.”

Five Practical Consequences

This above analysis has many consequences.

First, Orthodox Jewish communities seeking to thrive in the West must continue work – as the RCA resolution rightly notes – to secure, and maintain once secured, religious liberty protections for themselves (and other conservative groups) to the extent possible under various local laws.  Barring the unlikely (see above) event that the West changes direction, this will become increasingly difficult as it continues progressing along its “atomistic” path.

Second, the increasing Western acceptance of transgender people, gender fluidity, and polyamory (marriage between three or more adults of different sexes) for interested individuals, all accord well with the West’s “atomistic” approach to families and related matters.  While problems intrinsic in these developments may limit their appeal or cultural acceptance, I believe that protests against them from Western conservatives advocating for “domestic” family values will be just as ineffective over the long term as were their past protests against gay rights.

Even if one agrees that such protests are unlikely to lead to social change, one still might choose to make them in order to clarify Torah law and values for its adherents, or for other reasons.  When doing so, I believe that their formulations should expressly recognize the internal coherence of the “atomistic” view they critique (just as the RCA resolution does, though unlike most other such statements), and note where and why they dissent from it.  This is especially true if such protests are intended (quixotically, as per my above view) to engage contemporary societal interlocutors.

Third, this analysis provides a framework for “answering” some vexing questions.   A society or worldview built upon and devoted exclusively to a “domestic” family structure (such as the Torah’s, in my view) has no need to “explain” its prohibition or even punishment of homosexual sex or couplings, even if homosexual desire is natural; it is simply obvious.  I think this is the most straightforward way to explain “why” homosexual acts are prohibited and punishable according to Torah law and other similar, non-”atomistic” systems of law throughout history, as well.

It also provides a framework for “answering” the question, “What harm does homosexual marriage inflict upon heterosexual marriage?”  Identifying such “harm” is necessary under the West’s prevalent, sexual morality which, as noted above, is rooted in J. S. Mill’s “Harm Principle”.  No such obvious direct or even indirect “harm” can be identified – for otherwise such marriage would never have achieved such rapid acceptance in the contemporary West at all.  As posed, the question effectively includes its own answer; no serious retort is possible.

The only credible response is to advocate for a completely different, “domestic” vision of society.  This is my fourth point: Orthodox Jewry must explicitly articulate the details of the Torah’s “domestic” familial and societal vision, argue for its virtues in positive terms, and seek to embody and make visible that vision as much as possible.

Consider, for example, how the RCA resolution rightfully declares that Torah Jews are proudly indifferent to current Western epithets such as “bigoted, discriminatory, and judgmental”.  Their sting, after all, derives primarily from the West’s own moral vocabulary which differs greatly from the Torah’s.  Yet this approach convinces and fortifies primarily those who already believe. those to whom “they can’t push me around!” may appeal, and those who, for whatever reasons, are not bothered greatly by these questions.  But it does little to win over and retain young and other Orthodox Jews immersed in an ever more “atomistic” society and its (unstated) assumptions and approach to sexual and family life and who therefore challenge the Torah’s views.

To date, the families, institutions, and leaders of Modern Orthodoxy and other conservative religious groups readily criticize the “atomistic” family structures around them.  Rarely, however, do they articulate and elaborate upon the Torah’s entirely different, compelling, and comprehensive vision of Divine sanctity permeating every aspect of an entire nation.  (The RCA resolution briefly asserts this.)

This is a monumental task and one which, frankly, is beyond my imagination for all but the most insular diaspora Jewish communities who shun their surrounding powerful cultures to the extent possible.  Building such a comprehensively wholesome, sanctified society and family/tribal life for the Jewish people in contemporary Israel also seems, at the moment, impossibly distant – but as a religious Zionist, I pray that if He and His people together will it and work towards it, it will be no dream.

My final points relate, in the meantime, to here and now.  Different homosexuals and others respond to the RCA’s resolution differently, probably in keeping with their respective views of their own sexuality, of homosexuality in general, and other considerations as well.  Many will object to it strongly.  Yet others clearly find that it represents their view.  One Orthodox man, for example, even confided his struggles with his homosexuality to me as a result of the resolution – just as others have similarly confided in me and other Modern Orthodox rabbis in the past.

Some Orthodox synagogue communities have already splintered over issues described in the resolution. Although regrettable, the intensity of the human, faith, and even societal stakes at play in these issues mean that more such splits are likely, particularly in societies with strong religious freedoms. When a given rabbi/community and its resident homosexuals (and their allies) cannot find a way to abide by some variation on these (or similar) guidelines even after good-faith discussions, then each will need to decide how to proceed.

For now, though, I conclude as I began: “I believe that the positions set forth in the RCA’s resolution can and will serve as an enduring intellectual and practical framework for a stable, honest, and mutually respectful relationship between Orthodox homosexuals loyal to halakha and Orthodox synagogue communities in contemporary Western cultures.”