Saturday, December 26, 2009

Homosexuality in the Orthodox Jewish World

PERSONAL REQUEST: Please do not read this post prior to reading the full transcript of the Yeshiva University panel Being Gay in the Orthodox World posted on Chana's blog. Please also read her To Deserve and To Sacrifice post and R' Gil Student's The Growing Problem of Post Orthodoxy post as some points that will be attempted to be made below will undoubtedly overlap with some of the points they made in their writings. If you have the time, I recommend skimming through some of the comments on those posts as well - there are some interesting discussions scattered throughout. Thank you in advance.
Last week, Yeshiva University's Wurzweiler graduate school for Social Work hosted a panel whose mission was to share with the public the incredible difficulties faced by homosexuals in the Orthodox community, as halacha (Jewish law) does not allow for them to act upon their desires. As might be expected, it's a strong flash point in the Orthodox world, and discussions have abounded wherever one might step foot, with very interesting and different discussions all over - at work, at home, at Shabbos meals with different crowds, at shul.

According to the organizers and panelists, the primary purposes of the event were to promote discussion [and/that would in turn] evoke sympathy and understanding in the Orthodox world as to the difficulties faced by gays and lesbians in the frum community. The stories themselves are fascinating and in some cases, surprising and eye-opening, and each of the four panelists' stories bring up different aspects of the trials a gay person goes through. There are a number of things that can strike a person upon reading the transcript, but perhaps the most interesting point that sticks out is one that demonstrates just how unnecessary the entire production showed itself to be at this point in history.

The issues regarding homosexuality in the Orthodox community are predominantly different than those faced in the overall American public. The battles are not over gay marriage or civil unions, and based on the statements of the panelists, they never should be: The cause is to help those who are committed to living an Orthodox lifestyle while struggling with a severe test, which by definition a gay marriage could not be. Instead, the issues are more similar to those perhaps of discrimination, or more likely those of social ostracism and other social and familial relationships.

What was particularly interesting, however, was the overall consistency of the responses put forth from all over, with the summary being along the lines of: "That must be incredibly difficult, and we feel horrible for their impossible plight. If they're not acting on it, that's amazing, and good for them - I can't possibly imagine how hard that must be; if they are, it's something that needs to be condemned, not condoned. But did this need to be made into a public issue at all?" This is similar to the letter put out by some of the YU Roshei Yeshiva the morning of the event and also the letter YU's President Richard Joel put out along with the RIETS menahel (principal), R' Yona Reiss, after the event:
[...] Of course, as was indicated in a message issued by our Roshei Yeshiva, those struggling with this issue require due sensitivity, although such sensitivity cannot be allowed to erode the Torah's unequivocal condemnation of such activity. Sadly, as we have discovered, public gatherings addressing these issues, even when well-intentioned, could send the wrong message and obscure the Torah's requirements of halakhic behavior and due modesty. [...] We are committed to providing halakhic guidance and sensitivity with respect to all challenges confronted by individuals within our broader community, including homosexual inclinations, in a discreet, dignified and appropriate fashion.
Perhaps, however, the point was most clearly made by one of the panelists himself, when discussing his friends' reactions:
I told one friend and he was cool with it, but he would say ‘you can’t tell so-and-so because he’s too religious.’ So I went for it, next person I told was him and he was even better about it. And he said, ‘But you can’t tell so-and-so’ where it became this game. If only everybody even today knows how okay with it the next person was- truthfully it really surprised me. My friends are amazing.
It seems that people assume there to be a huge swell of homophobia and lack of tolerance within the Orthodox community to homosexuals - but that in truth, this just is not the case. There is certainly a lack of tolerance to or acceptance of homosexual actions, and anything which seems to condone this will immediately be shunned by the frum world - an appropriate reaction even according to at least some if not all of the panelists and presenters. Such a reaction would likely be similar to the one people would have to those who would openly break Shabbos or otherwise act in a way that was clearly against a major precept of Torah observance; in fact, people who have turned away from observant Judaism can likely confirm this to be true. While there may be eventual acceptance of "this is who he/she is" when a person leaves Orthodox Judaism, no Orthodox person would likely condone actions that are against Orthodox beliefs and imply that they acceptable within the Orthodox camp.

Instead of homophobia, however, it seems that gays and lesbians within the Orthodox world, when it actually comes down to it, are met predominantly with acceptance and usually a quiet sympathy. The assumption of intolerance just does not seem to match the actual reactions people have when faced with the situation. Much like in the outside world, when it comes to practical differences the gay population has with the straight population, there's not really anything there. Much like in the outside world (hat tip: Charlie Hall in the comments on Hirhurim), there's a clear level of acceptance that is particularly there among the younger generation. And much like in the outside world, it's hard to say that additional discussion would advance anything more that is positive for gays and lesbians, particularly as that translates into the Orthodox Jewish world.

In the end, it comes back to what the panelists themselves hoped to accomplish with this event, and that's difficult to say. If it was about understanding and sympathy, it is unclear what was accomplished; it seems that this understanding and sympathy was already there, certainly among the crowd that was drawn to the event and almost assuredly in the crowds that have been discussing it. The panelists seemed to feel that most of the Rabbonim they approached about their struggles reacted surprisingly well, and that the same was true of their peers. Typically it was families who reacted the worst, at least initially, but this is not particularly surprising in a community which prides itself often on its future plans and progeny and suddenly learns that this will not be happening as they may have been imagining it. All in all, it seems doubtful that the panel will have made much of an impact in how people view gays and lesbians in those terms.*

Some of the arguments people have for turning this into a public issue revolve around comparing it to other issues that were taboo or ignored in the Orthodox world until people forced them on the public until they finally started dealing with them. The primary flaw in this argument, however, is that there's extremely little the public can actually do in this case. As opposed to agunos**, publicly discussing homosexuality will not be placing pressure on others to help right a wrong that was committed. As opposed to molestation, discussion will not create awareness of a problem in order to protect children. As opposed to abuse, a public event will not help those who are getting hurt find a place to escape to to avoid that hurt. With homosexuality, it is a private and personal issue which the public cannot well relate to and where the public is almost completely powerless to help beyond what they are already doing at this point in history.

Ten or twenty years ago, this panel would have helped bring about incredible change by speeding up the acceptance of individuals who are gay or lesbian by their friends and relatives by helping them understand what they go through at a time when people really didn't understand well enough what being gay or lesbian meant. In December 2009, however, there doesn't seem to be that fundamental unawareness in the Orthodox community. The creation of such a panel and the promotion of groups that promote additional tolerance seem unlikely to create more tolerance but far more likely to create an impression (whether intended by its creators or not) of an acceptance of homosexuality that perhaps goes beyond just sympathy and understanding. That there was so much confusion as to this point even at YU seems to show an obvious lack of clarity as to where the lines are drawn in Orthodoxy, despite the panel's best efforts to mark those lines. While perhaps R' Student's warning of an upcoming leftward shift are overstated, he is certainly not wrong in seeing how this event can be used as a catapult for such a shift. Moreover, there are undoubtedly those who will use this event as a springboard to accepting homosexuality to a greater level than it should be, despite the best intentions of the planners of this event and the pronouncements of those who appeared.

Ten or twenty years ago, this panel could have been incredibly important and made a positive impact on the Orthodox Jewish community. Now, its potential for change is far more toward paths that most of the panelists and presenters themselves would deem completely unacceptable in Orthodoxy - and that's a shame.

* To preemptively discuss, the argument of "discussion shows positive impact" is a somewhat ridiculous comment in a context such as this, as discussion having a positive impact is true when there is a desire for some type of change to occur. As there is no such change being sought here, it turns into a circular "discussion is good because it's discussion, and that's good" argument.

** The comparisons of homosexuality to issues such as agunos are actually disturbing and somewhat despicable, in that they cheapen the plight faced by the various victims in those situations. Agunos receive public support for two primary reasons: 1) They were hurt by members of the community who are abusing the halachic system to shackle them, and therefore the community feels a responsibility to show the person that the community as a whole cares for them. 2) Publicizing the issue hopefully helps to force the 'husband' to send a get to her that otherwise he would not have. Molestation was made into a public issue to instill greater fear and responsibility in our schools and others to help stop abuse from happening in the first place and to encourage victims to speak up and families to not view it as taboo to do so, in order to punish the perpetrators and protect others from becoming victims as well. To compare situations like these to homosexuality is absurd - there is no unwilling victim and there is no outside factor playing a role that the community can help with.