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.
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