Nov 29, 2016 — As rabbis of Orthodox Jewish communities, we are obligated to offer halachic, spiritual and emotional support to all of the members of our communities, and concomitantly work to uphold the teachings of the Torah. This creates a particular challenge to us today as we seek to support and understand the members of our community with same-sex attractions while at the same time remaining loyal to the Torah’s well-known and eternal prohibition against homosexual activity. On the one hand, encouraging understanding of the Torah and compliance with its laws may discourage those who struggle with them. On the other hand, avoiding such topics risks diminishing the Torah’s teachings. We pray that our approach will fulfill the Talmudic dictum, “smol docha ve’yamin m’karevet”; i.e., that even while we push away with our left (weaker) hand, we at the same time succeed in drawing all Jews closer to Torah with our right (stronger) hand.
Although homosexuality has existed throughout history, it was a marginal part of public and Orthodox Jewish discourse until only a few decades ago. The societal and legal successes of the gay rights movement have impacted our community in three principal ways. At the broadest level, the changing political and legal landscape is beginning to create challenges to Orthodox Jewish and other religions’ institutions to maintain policies with accord with their communities’ values and practices. In the past, the RCA has taken action in legal cases relating to freedom of religion, and will continue to do so on an ongoing basis.
Cultural changes relating to homosexuality have also created intellectual and spiritual turmoil for some in our community who are loyal to Torah yet also find compelling secular ideas relating to homosexuality. Finally, these changes directly impact the lives of our community members who have strong homosexual desires, as well as their families and friends. Here, we present our views regarding these personal, communal, pastoral, and philosophical issues all of which are fundamental to us as rabbis and to all who embrace the Torah.
Many events and ideas reversed Western society’s perspectives on homosexuality over recent decades including: the sexual revolution of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s; the Stonewall Inn riots of 1969; the widespread repeal of sodomy laws; and, the devastation wrought by AIDS upon the gay community beginning in the 1980s. In their wake, the dominant culture of the homosexual community changed from a countercultural one to one advocating an integrationist stance as it sought to become part of mainstream culture – transforming that culture as it did so. This, in turn, was part of the rise of identity politics in the latter 20th century. Feminist and postmodern ideas and analyses of sexuality, gender roles, and gender identity played important roles; so did the continued secularization of American society which increasingly champions autonomous individuals who are free to decide what is right and wrong without interference from others. The past few years have seen the legalization of same-sex marriage by the United States Supreme Court as well as the expansion of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prohibit discrimination against LGBT workers. The result of these and other changes is that much of Western society now views formerly illegal and spurned sexual behaviors as foundational aspects of individuals’ self-identities, encourages public expression of these identities, and grants legal protections and political rights to individuals and groups expressing these identities.
Many of these developments in American culture and law are incompatible with the Torah’s comprehensive and qualitatively different framework for conceiving of the nature of human beings, of their goals in life, of liberty and its purposes, and of the society it seeks to foster. The Torah commands our “holy nation” (Exodus 19:6) to “be holy as God is holy.” (Lev. 19:1) This summons to sanctity defines all aspects of Jewish life including the personal, communal, and national; the economic and commercial; time (Shabbat and Yom Tov); food (kashrut); space (the Land of Israel, Jerusalem, the Temple); politics, culture, and language – and much more.
The Torah’s call for a life of sanctity is given special expression in sexual matters (Rashi, commentary to Leviticus 19:2). Torah law prohibits Jews from engaging in any sexual activity outside of monogamous heterosexual marriage, regulates sexual thoughts, physical touch, and private seclusion of between unrelated males and females and even demands that married couples, otherwise permitted to each other, separate during certain times of the month.
The Torah also sanctifies heterosexual activity in an affirmative sense. Celibacy, even for the pious, is frowned upon; marriage is a mitzvah. The Torah maintains that marriage includes, among other positive elements, an intrinsic and flourishing sexual component (mitzvat onah; Exodus 21:10) that is “not merely an instrument for parallel intense enjoyment, nor a vehicle for reciprocal consumption…but rather, a fundamental component in a comprehensive relationship…of ‘cleaving to his wife that they become one flesh’ – partly carnal…and powerfully existential.” (R. Aharon Lichtenstein; p. 28, here)
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.
The Torah’s sexual and marital morality has, at times, conflicted with other civilizations’ sexual and marital norms: “You shall not conduct yourselves as they did in Egypt where you dwelt nor as they do in Canaan where I [God] bring you; you shall not walk in their statutes.” (Leviticus 18:3) In numerous post-Biblical periods, Jewish sexual mores and family life often sharply differed from those among whom they lived; they still do today.
We are the heirs of our patriarch Avraham known as “ha‘Ivri,” for he stood on one side (’ever) while the rest of the world was on the other. Therefore, even if some deem us to be bigoted, discriminatory, and judgmental, we maintain our commitment to the values and teachings of the Torah, noting in particular that Biblical and rabbinic strictures prohibiting sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage are not subject to reinterpretation despite societal pressure. 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. We acknowledge that human personalities are complex and multifaceted with sexuality contributing one aspect to them – even as we reject founding personal identity upon sexual desire. We reassert our belief in the central importance and value of monogamous heterosexual marriage as the foundational norm of civilization.
For every Jew, striving for and achieving sanctity require sacrifice and life-long effort. The limitations of the human condition often result in our failing to accomplish what we seek; we often must settle for partial victories and for the need to try again in the future. We believe that the effort, pain, and sacrifice we each invest in this struggle bring the potential for great personal fulfillment and ultimate Divine reward. Such lifelong struggles and yearnings towards sanctity are the summom bonum of religious life.
Our community is comprised of many whose personal conduct, for a variety of reasons, does not fully reflect Torah standards of sanctity in speech, diet, Sabbath and holiday observance, sexual conduct, financial dealings, and more. Operating in the context of the personal freedoms of the modern era, our community has, over time, fashioned approaches which embrace such individuals while respecting communal norms. Broadly speaking, the terms of that embrace are four-fold:
- Advocacy of norms: In public, the community as a whole and its leaders continue to advocate and encourage compliance with all of its norms.
- Respect: Just as such advocacy and encouragement is done in ways which do not single out or castigate individuals whose personal views and conduct differ from communal norms, so too do such individuals express and act upon their views in a manner respectful of those norms.
- Possible Personal Restrictions: Depending on how far private views and conduct differ from communal norms, there may be restrictions on participation in certain communal activities.
- Empathy: In private and as individuals, community members recognize, understand, and empathize with one another’s imperfections while at the same time encouraging each other to strive, to the extent feasible, towards personal growth.
With variations, the above pattern applies to those whose private conduct or views do not comport with a variety of communal standards including Shabbat and kashrut observance, mikveh attendance, financial or ritual improprieties, and more.
These points help us frame our attitudes toward homosexuality and those in our communities with same-sex attractions. As already stated, each of these approaches must be carried out with a sense of duty and loyalty to the Torah and with empathy and understanding of those who struggle.
Regarding the first point, we affirm the eternity of the mitzvot of the Torah (Maimonides, Principle 9) and that we all are responsible to support standards of sexual behavior which comply with Torah law. One practical application of this obligation is that 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. At the same time, language and tone must be chosen with great care so as not to impinge upon the dignity of the Divine Image in which every person is created; personal abuse, by words or actions, is forbidden.
Applying the second element requires careful consideration of circumstances. At one extreme, there are those who are respectful while at the other extreme, there are individuals whose behavior or words demonstrate public disregard for halachic strictures against homosexual behavior or romance, or who seek communal approval or acknowledgement of the same. Just as would be the case regarding other prohibitions, such unacceptable conduct has no place in Orthodox institutions. Many other circumstances are more complex, requiring wise, individualized decision by a community’s rabbi.
The third element means that when determining a community’s or an institution’s welcome of, and ritual and leadership participation by, individuals who accept and respect its norms and ideals yet who violate homosexual or other sexual prohibitions, its rabbi must do so with consideration of existing communal practices which regulate other members of the community who do not conform to traditional standards.
The most personally sensitive element of the above framework is its fourth one. We must always strive to be aware of and to work to ameliorate the struggles, loneliness, and alienation experienced by those who feel marginalized from the Jewish community and from Jewish life, including 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. Those with strong same sex desire are surely among this group.
We are pained by the alienation felt by many homosexuals from their own community, the one in which they were born, raised, educated, and have family and friends.
Our communities include individuals and rabbis with a range of attitudes towards homosexuality, homosexuals, and related issues, ranging from warm embrace to principled opposition to personal unease to overt hostility, among others. We recognize and regret the perceived and real hostilities thus created for some observant Jews who identify themselves as members of the LGBTQ communities and their families.
We recognize and regret that many such individuals and their families often do not seek our rabbinic counsel and support. We pledge to work with them in order to better understand their life circumstances and challenges, and to extend our pastoral care.
Complying with the Torah’s sexual strictures 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.