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Looking at homosexuality

by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen - Last updated: 2003-10-23

It can't have escaped your attention that the issue of homosexuality has been the hot theological topic this summer. I keep on getting asked what my attitude is.

The whole issue of homosexuality needs to be looked at from two very different points of view. First there is the ideological. How does a traditional, text based religion, deal with something that is explicitly forbidden? There were in the past examples of great rabbinic legislation that found ways of dealing with problems created by the clash between Torah values and non-Jewish ones, but these were almost all matters of civil and commercial law, such as Hillel's Prosbul.

There were concessions made to non-Jewish values such as Rabbeynu Gershom's banning polygamy.

There were innovations that made some of the strictures of Shabbat easier and there were examples of effectively blocking certain rights the Torah allowed, but I can't think of any examples of overturning a moral law explicit in the Torah.

But more relevantly in my opinion is the question of how to deal with individual cases that break the mould. If it is true that homosexuality of its various varieties could be the result of a person's genes then condemnation would be as unacceptable as attacking someone for being ugly.

Indeed there are halachic situations were a physical deformity can be a disadvantage, for example in the case of a priest, even nowadays. But this does not affect the general status or acceptability on a personal level of the individual concerned. Of course not all cases are genetic, some are simply what it is fashionable to call 'lifestyle choices.'

Similar lifestyle choices may be taken by otherwise religious Jews who choose to remain single or if married defer having children. This too would conflict with the halachic ideal but it is hardly grounds fort victimisation. Indeed there are some choices made, such as adultery, or
dishonest behaviour, that may desecrate the Divine Name that really ought to require excommunication of some sort yet at the moment do not for all kinds of reasons I think I can explain although I do not at all approve.

Many people have grave difficulties growing up and dealing with all manner of problems, temptations and seductions. A caring spiritual community needs to be as supportive and inclusive as possible without of course betraying its values and ideals.

The problem, in so far as it is a problem, really concerns those who are different and yet wish to remain part of a very traditional community. Of course for those who reject orthodoxy, this specific problem is irrelevant. I have come across genuinely religious, committed and halachically bound Jews who desperately want to remain within the fold but feel themselves rejected and reviled because their sexual preferences (orientation if you prefer) is towards the same sex. They are not trying to change laws or campaign for 'gay rights.' They simply want to feel that their genetic predilections do not in themselves preclude them from being part of the community.

And indeed they should be included. One needs to draw a distinction between punishable acts, which are so in Judaism only if there are actual witnesses, and personal tendencies. There is absolutely no source whatsoever in halacha that bans close warm friendships and supportive relationships between people of the same sex. You want to check on my sex life? You have no right to do that! Even in heterosexual situations, let alone these.

We in the Torah community must differentiate between those who want to be part of our community and those who want to try to dismantle it.

Within Judaism we have our varieties as we have always done, certainly since the Pharisees and Saduccees. There are those denominations which are egalitarian, those which accept a patrilineal definition of Jewish identity as opposed to the maternal. I am in favour of variety so long as no one tells me how I should understand halacha or to change something I believe is unchangeable.

I am in favour of varieties because it is a challenge to each group to sink or swim, succeed or fail and may the most effective purveyor and sustainer of our tradition win! I know where I'm putting my bets.

And if we Jews have survived with all our varieties, why can't the Church of England?

Shabbat Shalom