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.

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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.”

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