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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Discussing two of the big three no-nos

There are three things which the rules of polite discourse dictate we refrain from discussing in a public setting: Religion, Sex and Money. Bring up any of these at a dinner party, and someone is likely to feel threatened.

Consider this fair warning that I'm going to violate two of these taboos today. So if you are the type who makes a show of being offended at dinner parties when one of these topics is raised, maybe this would be a good day to find your entertainment elsewhere.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is a well known, somewhat controversial personality in the Orthodox Rabbinic world. The L.A. born Hassidic Rabbi is considered by some to be a star-struck publicity seeker, and by others to be a voice of reason and conciliation who chooses to reside in the glare of the spotlights where the disparate worlds of Hollywood and observant Judaism collide.

Personally, I don't know enough about him to decide who or what he is. I only know that he has made a name for himself publicly tackling topics that few other members of the rabbinate feel comfortable discussing in anything but the most private setting. Case in point is one of his books entitled 'Kosher Sex: A Recipe for Passion and Intimacy'; not the title or subject matter one would expect in a literary offering from a Hassidic Rabbi.

I don't want to talk specifically about Rabbi Boteach today, so much as I want to draw your attention to an essay he recently published in which he discusses homosexuality and religious observance.

This is not his first foray into these turbulent waters, but it is (IMHO) one of his most admirable offerings on the topic. Here are a few of what I consider to be the high points:

"People of faith insist that homosexuality is the most serious of sins because the Bible calls it an abomination.

But the word [abomination] appears approximately 122 times in the Bible. Eating nonkosher food is an abomination (Deuteronomy 14:3). A woman returning to her first husband after being married in the interim is an abomination (Deut. 24:4). And bringing a blemished sacrifice on God’s altar is an abomination (Deut. 17:1.). Proverbs goes so far as to label envy, lying and gossip as that which “the Lord hates and are an abomination to Him” (3:32, 16:22).

As an Orthodox rabbi who reveres the Bible, I do not deny the biblical prohibition on male same-sex relationships. Rather, I simply place it in context.

There are 613 commandments in the Torah. One is to refrain from gay sex. Another is for men and women to marry and have children. So when Jewish gay couples come to me for counselling and tell me they have never been attracted to the opposite sex in their entire lives and are desperately alone, I tell them, “You have 611 commandments left. That should keep you busy. Now, go create a kosher home with a mezuza on the door. Turn off the TV on the Sabbath and share your festive meal with many guests. Put on tefillin and pray to God three times a day, for you are His beloved children. He desires you and seeks you out.”

And he's just getting started at that point!

Personally, I have never been even slightly tempted to 'take a few swings for the other team'. But by chance or Design, my life has bumped up against this issue almost constantly.

To mention just two instances; a former housemate and one of the most profound influences on my life's trajectory, turned out to be gay (I didn't realize it at the time), and one of my siblings revealed to me (a few years before I was equipped to process the news) that she was a lesbian.

In his essay, Rabbi Boteach was able to articulate something that has puzzled me for years. Whenever I hear about people protesting gay parades, gay marriage and such, who wouldn't dream of protesting any of the other Biblical violations which fill the world with injustice, violence and even death, I have to wonder why. Why this one sin? What is it about homosexuality that forces people to shake of an apathy that survives just about any other insult? With our limited time and means, why do so many ignore the wide spectrum of terrible things in the world, and yet set aside time and money to tilt at this particular rainbow?

In the essay Rabbi Boteach goes on to write:

"Once, I said to my friend Pat Robertson, whom I have always found engaging and open in our conversations, “Why can’t you simply announce to all gay men and women, ‘Come to church. Whatever relationship you’re in, God wants you to pray. He wants you to give charity. He wants you to lead a godly life.”

He answered to the effect that homosexuality is too important to overlook, seeing as it poses the most grave risk to the institution of marriage. Other Evangelical leaders have told me the same. Homosexuality is the single greatest threat to the family.

But with one of two heterosexual marriages failing, with 70 percent of the Internet dedicated to the degradation of women through pornography and with a culture that is materially insatiable even as it remains all-too spiritually content, can we straight people say with a straight face that gays are ruining our families? We’ve done a mighty fine job of it ourselves."

Aside from the fact that I find Rabbi Boteach to be a shameless name-dropper (ok, who in Hollywood isn't?), I find it hard to find fault with what he writes.

I encourage you to go read the whole essay, and to do so with as open a mind as you can manage. We all have our baggage and prejudices, many of which have served us well and allowed us to survive in our chosen environments.

You want to take offense at what he writes? Feel free. Respond with a well-reasoned rebuttal? By all means.

But just this once, in the privacy and safety of your home or office, read about these two of the big three taboo topics without feeling threatened. He isn't asking you to encourage your kids to go gay, or change anything about yourself... other than your perception of what is truly worthy of protest.

Posted by David Bogner on October 19, 2010 | Permalink


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I'm pretty sure a lot of the blowback is the result of actions from the gay side. There are no "Jews who eat pork" parades; nor did people thunder against homosexuality as much a hundred years ago.

Posted by: Nachum | Oct 19, 2010 10:36:56 AM

Nachum... Correct me if I'm wrong, but to my knowledge, nobody was ever lynched... or kept from pursuing their preferred profession... or denied the ability to inherit property, make medical decisions for a loved one, or adopt a child... for eating a BLT. Some things require a little public spectacle before social mores begin to change.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Oct 19, 2010 10:43:15 AM

R' Boteach is correct, but is being somewhat... I don't want to say deceitful, but slightly misleading.

Yes, there are many mitzvos. Yes, we are told to keep all of them, and not, as pirkei avos warns, to rank them as more important or less important. Yes, some of the anti-homosexuality movement is based on visceral disgust and not Biblical mandate.

However, countering this, are at least two very significant points.

First, while there are other "abominations" mentioned, it is worth noting that one of the earliest Rabbinic interpertations of the Torah, the Targum Onkelos (which the Talmud says was given at Sinai), differentiates between toevot [lit: abominations] which he translates as "merachek" and those which he translates as "toevta". Illicit sexual relations, specifically homosexuality, idolatry, and witchcraft are the only toevot which he translates as abominations. There is something unique in this act [not in the person, but in the act] that is not found by, say, eating non kosher food.

Secondly, the transfer of the revulsion for this sin to the sinner is something that, IMHO, is a consequence of the notions of lifestyle and pride. I know several O Jews who struggle with homosexual feels [and I'm sure the number who I don't of is significantly greater], and I can assure you that personally, I have nothing but respect for them and their struggles. I also know people who struggle with Shabbos, or kashrus, or not stealing money, whether from the government or from other people. However, none of them have claimed that their urges, however strong they may be, and however painful it may to not give in, should either define who they are, nor what is an acceptable ideal.

There is no question that homosexuals [whether those with urges nor those who have idealized their desires] suffer many injustices (although note that almost all of your examples stem from one: inability to form a legally recognized union). As long as a government allows civil marriage, I see no reason why they can / should prohibit gay unions or bigamy [no, I'm not going to disgrace myself by mentioning bestiality here, but I might be inclined to say that statutory rape should be below 12 or 13, the way it was for many of our ancestors]. To be denied a promotion, or to be lynched, is obviously completely unacceptable in a modern democracy.

However, none of that should prevent the Jewish religious community (I don't know enough about Christian or Muslim theology to comment) from continuing to declare that (a) the act is a unique category [as are all of the forbidden sexual relations (and so is niddah, btw, for a Jew)] and (b) a believer can never, ever, declare that a particular commandment is not relevant, and indeed, take pride in his stumbling.

I apologize for the long comment, and the fact that it could benefit from some editing. An 11 line comment box is not conducive to review, and I'm too lazy to edit this properly, but I feel that some response is preferable to waiting for me to forget to do this properly.

P.S. Note that lesbianism, or anything but anal intercourse for male homosexuals, are not generally viewed as Biblical prohibitions (although lesbianism is a rabbinic prohibition according to most). Other intimate acts may violate the prohibitions against willing engaging in inappropriately sexual thoughts, and are probably not recommended...

Posted by: Mike Miller | Oct 19, 2010 11:36:12 AM

"nobody was ever lynched... or kept from pursuing their preferred profession... or denied the ability to inherit property, make medical decisions for a loved one, or adopt a child."

There's a world of difference between those. The last three are passive, the first two are active. The last three are all directly related to sexual/gender issues, which is what defines a person as "homosexual," so it's not surprising they'd be affected by them.

As to the first two, people have suffered those things for many, many other reasons. And while they are never justified, I wonder how many examples actually exist- especially, say, 100 years ago.

I hate to say this, but a religious Jew cannot simply throw around words like "choice" and "love" so easily. We believe in God; we believe there are certain things he wants of us, and that our "choices" and "loves" are accordingly limited.

Posted by: Nachum | Oct 19, 2010 12:26:00 PM

Mike Miller... Much of what your well-considered comment states is based on the acceptance of Onklus' translation as being word-for-word, letter-for-letter' from G-d... and I am apparently not of a high enough level of faith to accept that. IMHO, anything that passes through the hands, minds and mouths of man is in danger of being colored and changed in the passage. I'm not saying that Onklus deliberately editorialized based on the same kind of 'visceral disgust' for homosexuality you mentioned, but I'm not ruling it out either. In any event, while I appreciate the thought and sincerity you put into your comment, I find that it balances on the knife edge of a very specific premise in very much the same way you suggest Rabbi Boteach's essay does.

Nachum... Let me understand this; inheriting property, making medical decisions for loved ones and adopting children are "all directly related to sexual/gender issues"?! How do you figure? Also, what are you suggesting by wondering out loud "how many examples actually exist [of lynchings and people not being able to enter certain professions due to sexual orientation] especially, say, 100 years ago"? 100 years ago the number was astronomical while today it is relatively low only because of social activism on the part of the gay community. Lastly, I didn't use the words 'choice' or 'love' once in my post, nor did Rabbi Boteach in his essay. I welcome your comments, but please confine yourself to what is actually written.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Oct 19, 2010 12:53:58 PM

Thank you for your courage in posting this and standing up for what you believe.

Posted by: Leah Caruso | Oct 19, 2010 2:24:17 PM

I have found that in recent years I have totally changed the way I think about homosexuality. My way of thinking has become more in line with what you wrote, whereas I used to be....more bigotted. Overall I think this is a good thing, but I sometimes wonder if our society is becoming so loose and open, and oversexualized that everything seems normal and acceptable to us. No matter, discrimination and bigotry should have no place amongst people who consider themselves good, kind and non-judgmental.

And you're my second regular-blogread to talk about this. Kate also has what to say about this: http://onetiredema.wordpress.com/2010/10/12/in-which-i-cant-be-silent-any-more/

Posted by: Baila | Oct 19, 2010 2:57:25 PM

I agree with you totally! Thank you for posting this brave post.

Posted by: Ariela | Oct 19, 2010 3:04:55 PM

“You have 611 commandments left. That should keep you busy."

From my personal perspective, this statement is really the crux of the issue for everybody -- we should all be so consumed with our pursuit of fulfilling mitzvot (commandments) that we shouldn't have time to stop and judge/chastise/humiliate/ridicule/etc. anyone else.

It never ceases to amaze me how people can be so viciously critical of someone else's aveirot (transgressions) while simultaneously committing the aveirot of lashon hara (gossip/evil talk), sinat chinam (baseless hatred), and shaming or embarrassing another human being, in so describing the other person's "error."

The only actions we can control are our own -- and often this proves to be difficult enough. Given that, isn't it more important that we work on our own individual ability to treat others with kindness rather than condemning people for things which should have little or no bearing upon our own lives?! I'm just sayin'.....

Posted by: zahava | Oct 19, 2010 3:20:34 PM

I'm going to sidestep the main topic of discussion for now, but I would like to comment on Onklus:

Any time you translate from one language to another you are going to be editorializing to some extent, and Onklus is also not necessarily the last word (Rashi often agrees with Onklus but he does sometimes disagree as well).

Even so, Onklus is as authoritative a translation as you can get -- In the Halachic codes of the Rishonim (and Achronim), Onklus' treatment of the text is often considered when deciding halachot. Occasionally, Onklus is *the* deciding factor.

Even if Targum Onklus not "word-for-word, letter-for-letter from G-d", Onklus has firm footing among the sources and should not be brushed *off* casually.

I would hope that Rabbi Boteach is aware that the word "abomination" in scripture is not always treated the same way by the classic commentators. His lumping together "approximately 122" instances -- including some from Proverbs -- without regard for possible differences in Halachic significance is (at best) overly simplistic, if not disingenuous.

Posted by: wogo | Oct 19, 2010 3:27:22 PM

Leah Caruso... Since when is expressing an opinion couragous? What are they going to do, revoke my poetic license? :-)

Baila ... I suggest you read another recent essay by Rabbi Boteach entitled 'How The Condom Culture Is Killing Sex' on the pitfalls of over-sexualizing everything in our society.

Ariela ... Between you and Leah I'm starting to wonder if the thought police are going to take me away. We're just talking here... thinking out loud and sharing opinions. I don't know about you, but I don't live in a place where that is particularly brave.

zahava... To some extent you are adopting the 'let he who is without sin cast the first stone' philosophy, which is not an entirely Jewish one. We do consider ourselves responisble for one another and in many cases are obligated to try to disuade someone from committing a sin if we think we have a reasonable chance of success. That being said, I don't think any of the current anti-gay activism going on is intended to do that.

Wogo... I do not brush Onklus aside or minimize his importance. But I also do not consider him an infallable conduit of G-d's intention as I would a Prophet such as Moses.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Oct 19, 2010 3:36:10 PM

There is a world of difference between sinning in private and doing so publicly. R. Boteach could have a point if he were simply advising homosexuals to conduct their relations in private; but the issue nowadays is not just a private issue. It is the demand that society recognize regular ongoing violation of the Torah as above reproach and just as good as doing G-d's will. It would be as though a member of an Orthodox shul regularly made trefe simchas and demanded them to be acknowledged by the congregation and not in any way criticized - and expected to be a member in good standing while doing so.

Yes, it is a shame for those who are actually incapable of being attracted to members of the opposite sex that they might not ever receive social sanction for their relationships - but that doesn't mean that we should redefine society to accommodate them.

Posted by: Russell Gold | Oct 19, 2010 4:02:31 PM

Russell Gold... I don't see anywhere in his essay that Rabbi Boteach is saying "regular ongoing violation of the Torah as above reproach and just as good as doing G-d's will". What he seems to be saying is that he sees no value in telling someone who is hardwired in such a way that they cannot realistically fulfill two of the 613 mitzvot, that they should chuck the rest as well. I don't know about you, but nearly every shul I've ever belonged to had at least one or two well-heeled members who weren't, shall we say, the most piously observant, G-d fearing, members of the congregation. Yet they seemed to be honored at a lot of the dinners. Hmmmmm. My point is that we have the ability to overlook a multitude of sins - even those committed quite publicly -when we have a compelling enough reason to do so. Why not this one?

Posted by: treppenwitz | Oct 19, 2010 4:11:38 PM

I am actually not suggesting that we refrain from trying to influence people away from sin, but rather that we are more cautious in how we proceed when so doing.... By degrading someone else's choices, we are less likely to be heard, and our ability to influence is greatly diminished. Rather that adopting the "cast the first stone" philosophy, I was trying to suggest that "you catch more flies with honey than vinegar."

Posted by: zahava | Oct 19, 2010 4:16:01 PM

zahava... when you start talking about 'choice' and 'catching more flies with honey...', it sounds a lot like you feel gays have the ability to change their stripes. I don't share that opinion, which is one of the reasons I am quite sympathetic to their position.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Oct 19, 2010 4:18:27 PM

You said you don't rule out deliberate editorialization (by Onklus) based on 'visceral disgust' -- that looks like a brushoff to me... But it certainly wouldn't be the first time I misinterpreted your intention...

Even so, where do you draw the line? If prophecy is a prerequisite for knowing G-d's intention, is all of Torah Sheba'al Peh just educated guesswork?

In any event, my point was more a criticism of Rabbi Boteach little drasha on "To'evah". I don't know if it's lack of scholarship or intellectual dishonesty, but it rings hollow.

Posted by: wogo | Oct 19, 2010 4:33:30 PM

I used the word "choice" for lack of a better option.

I share your view that being gay is not a choice (which, since we have been married 19+ years, you know).

The "choice" to which I refer was whether or not to be included in Jewish communal life, and the honey/vinegar reference was with regards to the degree of warmth to which the straight Jewish community welcomes members of the gay Jewish community.

I understand your zealousness for choosing words carefully (again the whole 19+ married "thing"), but jeez! cut a girl some slack! If you feel I am not expressing my sentiments well enough, feel free to reframe them -- or, you know!, pick up a phone and clarify. If you think that someone is going to misunderstand my sentiments, I am delighted to put your editorial skills to work!

Posted by: zahava | Oct 19, 2010 5:10:30 PM

wogo... calling someone human is not brushing them off. I understand that you come from a mindset that asigns something approaching infallibility to Chazal that I do not share. This is not to say I don't have tremendous respect for them or their scholarship and body of transmitted texts. It just means that I consider them subject to the same human flaws as anyone else. If all of Torah Sheh Baal Peh was as frozen and perfect as Torah She'B'ktav, we would not see any evolution in halachah or new interpretations by later Rabbis. Yet we do see disagreements between rishonim and aharonim about many thngs, and each generation of Rabbinic scholars is forced to use their own understanding of what has come before. When our understanding of something evolves, it is not a 'brush off' of our previous understanding.

Zahava... Fair enough. I see how I missed your point. And next time (assuming I'm not already sitting on a conference call) I will pick up the phone and call to ask what you meant.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Oct 19, 2010 5:22:01 PM

Thanks! :-)

Posted by: zahava | Oct 19, 2010 5:30:05 PM

You don't have to accept Onkelos, but if you don't, I would say that taking the Hebrew at face value, it's our lack of understanding why, say, shatnez is an abomination, that should be challenged, and not the understanding of why homosexual intercourse is consider toevah.

I deliberated whether or not to include that section; my main point is that a non emotional view of homosexuality must reflect the fact that in modern times, as in many historical periods, it was not as a human failing (the way, say, theft or idolatry would be) but as an ideal.

Posted by: Mike Miller | Oct 19, 2010 5:58:29 PM

Mike Miller - must reflect the fact that in modern times, as in many historical periods, it was not as a human failing (the way, say, theft or idolatry would be) but as an ideal.

Idolatry is viewed as a failing today? Hmmm, what about all those folks that worship their homes, cars, mobile phones, etc? :-)

Posted by: Mark | Oct 19, 2010 6:06:30 PM

no no david...don't pick up the phone. Then the rest of us would miss out on your blatant misunderstanding of your lovely wifes apparently hastily chosen words.
Now, what fun would that be.
(I love you guys)

Since I am not of your faith I am unfamiliar with these 613 commandments.
That seems like a lot. Do you carry a cheat sheet?

Posted by: weese | Oct 19, 2010 6:30:08 PM

I have never understood why so many people feel threatened by gay marriage. I had two gay uncles and am pretty sure that I have a few other relatives who are gay so it is personal for me. But that doesn't really change several fundamental issues for me.

1) The false claim that gay marriage is a threat to straight marriage. People aren't going to get divorced because Bob and Ted are "allowed" to get married. And the claim that suddenly we will see people marrying their pets is just ridiculous. If you have that kind of love for Rin Tin Tin it doesn't matter whether it is sanctioned or not.

2)I am not a literalist when it comes to Torah. It is not min hashamayim- inspired maybe, but not the literal word and as such there are areas that are open for interpretation and discussion.

3) I think that Gay people should be given the chance to be just as miserable as the rest of us married people. ;)

4) I don't think that it is a choice so I am not worried about my children suddenly deciding to be gay. I am not going to lie, I hope that they are straight. But that is solely because as a father I want them to have an easier life. I won't love them any less.

Posted by: Jack | Oct 19, 2010 6:45:29 PM

Oh, OK, I get it now. Thanks for all that.

Posted by: Nachum | Oct 19, 2010 6:53:59 PM

OK, I know where people are coming from on issues like this and know it's pointless to try to have a discussion. (Although I'm pretty sure that 100 years or so from now people will laugh over how everyone thought it was such a big deal that had to be addressed.) But you've accused me of something, and I must respond:

"Lastly, I didn't use the words 'choice' or 'love' once in my post"

Not in your post, but in your comment:

"or kept from pursuing their preferred profession"

That would be a "choice" there. So...what if a practicing, out and proud homosexual wants to be an Orthodox rabbi. Should he or she be "kept from pursuing" it?

"make medical decisions for a loved one"

There's the "love."

Posted by: Nachum | Oct 19, 2010 7:04:50 PM

David, first of all, let me 'out' myself as THE lesbian sibling of yours... and thank you for all of your support - couldn't ask for a better brother!

how fun that the comments were even more entertaining and informative than the actual post!!! And, like Weese, love the comment/conversation we all got to enjoy between you & your lovely wife!

I read the actual article and like all that he had to say.. until this:
"I am in favor of gay civil unions rather than marriage because I am against redefining marriage. But gay marriage doesn’t represent the end of Western civilization."

He is trying to be fair, but the bottom line is that he is supporting the treatment of people unequally. But then maybe he isn't? Contradicting couple of sentences there.

Thanks, again, David... nice job of bringing up relevent topics to get people talking! :)

Posted by: val | Oct 19, 2010 7:30:55 PM

Zahava... Don't thank me...

Mike Miller... Rabbi Boteach has smicha from some very well respected Rabanim. I am a Baal tshuva who has trouble helping my kids with their religious studies homework. I trust his knowledge of tanach where it comes to this point. If you've read any of his essay you will see that he would not manipulate the Torah to promote homosexuality.

Mark... Interesting point

Weese... When you stop to consider that some of them are positive (thou shalt...) and some are negative (thou shalt not...), and combined they are supposed to provide guidelines for all aspects of your life... So 613 is a pretty reasonable list. :-)

Jack... In fairness, if you don't accept the Torah as divine, then we can't really have a reasonable discussion of the central issues that Rabbi Boteach is making. They are the 613 mitzvoth, not the 613 suggestions.

Nachum... To call that a stretch would be generous. I feel like I'm trying to hit a moving target with your comments. To be honest it is tiring me out and I get the sense you aren't listening anyway.

Val... Looking for someone with whom you agree on every point is a tall order. I admire this Rabbi because he is very up front and doesn't pretend to be all things for all people. But I'm glad you enjoyed the essay. You should read some of his other stuff that is posted on his site. Not your typical hassidic rabbi.

Posted by: Treppenwitz | Oct 19, 2010 7:34:31 PM

I'm sorry, but what's tiring is the demonization on the part of the bien pensants of anyone who doesn't hold the "proper" view of this issue. And I gotta tell ya, Trepp, I think even you'd be a bit frightened of what the "proper" view is.

Posted by: Nachum | Oct 19, 2010 7:53:03 PM

That's a great post David. Thank you for writing about this issue. I agree with Val; the comments are interesting too.

Posted by: Ilana-Davitata | Oct 19, 2010 7:54:07 PM

I don't see anywhere in his essay that Rabbi Boteach is saying "regular ongoing violation of the Torah as above reproach and just as good as doing G-d's will".

That's what endorsing marriage or civil unions amounts to - it is a public declaration that openly gay relationships are just as valid as traditional marriage. Which is, of course, the reason that gay activists are promoting them, along with their denunciations of "heteronormativity." The very idea that homosexuality is wrong is under attack, and concessions because gays are afraid of being alone will merely confirm the idea that it is NOT wrong.

What he seems to be saying is that he sees no value in telling someone who is hardwired in such a way that they cannot realistically fulfill two of the 613 mitzvot, that they should chuck the rest as well.

If that were all that was going on, I would heartily agree, which is why I feel that private homosexuality is something worth ignoring. Gay marriage and civil unions are explicitly about not being private.

I don't know about you, but nearly every shul I've ever belonged to had at least one or two well-heeled members who weren't, shall we say, the most piously observant, G-d fearing, members of the congregation. Yet they seemed to be honored at a lot of the dinners. Hmmmmm. My point is that we have the ability to overlook a multitude of sins - even those committed quite publicly -when we have a compelling enough reason to do so. Why not this one?

Because there are no major public movements intent on making Shabbos violation or eating trefe normal and proper behavior for Jews, that should be seen as just as valid as keeping Shabbos and keeping kosher. Gay activists are waging a war to redefine marriage and redefine morality -- and because of that, we cannot yield on this.

Posted by: Russell Gold | Oct 19, 2010 8:25:42 PM

Thank you, Russell.

Posted by: Nachum | Oct 19, 2010 9:03:28 PM

It seems to me that the issues addressed in today's post are not whether or not to recognize the gay rights movement's agenda, but rather how individual gay people are treated and included/excluded from communal Jewish life.

Posted by: zahava | Oct 19, 2010 9:10:33 PM

We all know that life long chastity can be a curse, especially for those who are born hard wired for homosexuality. But there are plenty more who can go either way; Some of us have one clear instant when a decision has to be made. The more socially acceptable homosexuality is, the more that will chose it at that definitive moment. Rabbi Boteach's soft heart and pity has moved him to champion the former but he ends up doing a disservice to the latter.

Posted by: Barzilai | Oct 19, 2010 9:21:03 PM

Just have to share a really funny line I saw about gay marriage recently: "If you're against gay marriage you should blame straight people. They're the ones who keep having all the gay babies".

That being said, I've been saying what Rabbi Boteach wrote for about 15 years now (since I had an opinion that could be formulated).

When someone in an Orthodox shul says they are religious no one goes to their house, checks their beds, checks up on the wife going to the mikveh, etc. We just take them at their word. So too for homosexual couples who wish to belong to Orthodox shuls/communities. If you tell me you are religious, I am not checking your bedroom, because what you do there is your business, just like what I do in mine is my business. Call me naive, but that's the way I choose to see it. Like David said, there are no shortage of Orthodox shul board members who cheat on their wives, behave unethically and/or illegally in business, etc.

No one's Bible says being gay is an abomination - only the act itself, and I'm just not asking what happens behind closed doors.

I have a hard time believing in a compassionate God who loves his "children", creates them gay, and then leaves them to suffer by being forced to be alone or not included in their community. For several years I didn't consider myself religious and this was (among a few others) one of the reasons why. Until I created my own philosophy of Judaism's acceptance of homosexuals (but not, again, the act of homosexual sex).

When discussions like these roll around I always get the distinct feeling that Someone Up There is smacking their forehead saying "No, NO, NO, that is so not what I meant!"

Posted by: Noa | Oct 20, 2010 1:17:56 AM

In my world, it's pretty freaking brave for an Orthodox Jew to take a public stand on this issue. Kudos to you!

Posted by: Leah Caruso | Oct 20, 2010 2:19:57 AM

On a day when the New York Yankees are one game away from being eliminated in the American League Championship Series by the Texas Rangers!!!, it seems obvious that G-d has changed His mind about a few things. So why shouldn't He strike off His prohibition against just one more abomination?

Posted by: Bob | Oct 20, 2010 6:14:45 AM

Mark -- society generally views those people as moral failures. Moral failures who are news headliners, of course, but moral failures nonetheless...

Treppenwitz -- I'd rather not debate R' Boteach's rabbinical competence. But ask yourself one question, "is this article a conclusion in search of sources, or sources leading to a conclusion."

Again, I happen to agree with him that much of the opposition is social, and based on a sense of personal revulsion. That doesn't change the fact that his position, name "homosexuality is just another one of 613", is wrong, and to a Biblically minded individual the notion that "I'm proud to be engaging in homosexual behavior" is no less repulsive than "I'm proud to be screwing my neighbor's wife" or "I'm proud to enjoy my BLT sandwhich" (although maybe no more repulsive, either, which I think is a point we would agree with).

Posted by: Mike Miller | Oct 20, 2010 6:42:18 AM

David, thank you for this post. I, too, am mystified as to why people, particularly people who claim to value God's word, would single gay people (or any particular group) out for cruel treatment on the basis of one act being called an abomination when there are so many others that are described in the same way. (And I probably could have put this better, but I'm in a hurry.)

Anyway, kol ha-kavod to you.

Posted by: Rahel | Oct 20, 2010 7:54:42 AM

Nachum... Nobody is demonizing anyone over here on my site. Yet several people - yourself included - immediately staked out a very antagonistic, pre-emptive position on issues that weren't even mentioned in the essay. I don't care what happens elsewhere, but on my site I encourage people to discuss what is posted, not what is happening elsewhere.

Ilana-Davitata ... 'interesting'. Now there's a word. :-)

Russell Gold... I almost always enjoy your comments, but IMHO you are way out of line. If you'd read his essay you would see that he doesn't endorse gay marriage. He's also not advancing the idea of anything to do with being gay being right or wrong. He is simply trying to say that there are different/better ways to direct our energies than singling out this one (or two) sins for universal censure. And as to your statement "...there are no major public movements intent on making Shabbos violation or eating trefe normal and proper behavior for Jews", there are several no-orthodox movements that would beg to differ.

zahava... Thank you Zahava. Glad someone caught that.

Barzilai... What you are selling is a debunked myth that there comes a moment of choice in a person's life when he/she can go one way or another in their sexual orientation. This has been discredited by mainstream psychology and doesn't even merit discussion. Yes, there are certainly bi-sexual people... lots of them. And yes, I am sure that many bisexual individuals remain publicly hetero due to the social pressure and/or stigma of being gay. In theory, by removing some of the stigma of being gay we might be setting the stage for some of these bi-sexual individuals to present a different public persona. But this is none of my business. The essay being discussed does not suggest pretending everything is ok and that Judaism is fine with male homosexuality. It isn't and it never will be. What he is saying is that we place far too heavy an emphasis on this issue when there are so many others threatening the very integrity of the community. Personally, I find it far more damaging to the cohesiveness of the Jewish community when we run after, fawn on, and honor wealthy donors who publicly violate the sabbath. That sends the worst possible message to our children since the odds that they will be gay are fairly fixed, while the odds that they may go off the derech and become non-observant grow every day.

Noa... I think many people have missed the fact that Rabbi Boteach is not advocating bringing the gay issue out into the light of day and making it an acceptable mainstream lifestyle in our community. He doesn't deal with that at all. He is simply talking about how he deals with it in a private setting and he wishes others would follow his example.

Leah Caruso... who knew I was such an iconoclast! :-)

Bob... I know your comment is meant to be funny, but I need to remind everyone (again) that nowhere in his essay did Rabbi Boteach even hint that homosexuality should be removed from the list of 'abominations'. He was simply putting it in the context of all the other things that G-d called abominations.

Mike Miller ... Once again you (and others) are presenting things that are not found in his essay in order to justify a wider discussion. That is called setting up a straw man and it won't fly here. He never suggests that Gays should be all "I'm proud to be engaging in homosexual behavior". He was simply saying that their sins should not define them any more than our sins should define us. You want to make this about gay rights, gay marriage or mainstreaming gay lifestyle? Go ahead (elsewhere), but none of that is to be found in the essay under discussion.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Oct 20, 2010 8:34:31 AM

(For those of you keeping track I'm responding to some older comments here)

@ Trep: I would not say that Chazal were infallible (or even close to it), but I would say that while they were indeed human, they were intellectually honest to an extreme and very careful about the words they used. Mountains of halachot are built on the nuances of language in the Gemara and even in the Rishonim. The evolution of halacha -- certainly in our time -- is mostly about the application of earlier rulings to new situations (for example, determining the halachic status of a corporation). Generally this is done by carefully parsing the words of Chazal and the Rishonim. If we don't assume that they chose the words they used for clear, *halachic* reasons (as opposed to personal bias), then we no longer have the ability to apply their words to our world.

If there is a disagreement among the sources and you want to argue one side or the other that's fine, but I'm not willing to second-guess the intentions behind an authoritative source -- particularly when his opinion is uncontested.

@ Weese: As Trep said, many of the 613 commandments are "thou shalt..." as opposed to "thou shalt not...". Besides that, some only apply to women, some only apply to men, some only apply to judges or Kohanim (priests) or farmers or a king. Some commandments are only applicable in the land of Israel, and some are no longer relevant after the destruction of the Temple. Then you have lots of basics -- like "don't kill" and "love G-d", and the seasonal ones -- "eat matza on Passover" and "don't eat anything on Yom Kippur"...

With a little practice the cheat sheet quickly becomes unnecessary.


Posted by: wogo | Oct 20, 2010 9:54:49 AM

Surely you don't mean to suggest that the Texas Rangers going to the World Series is anything less than an abomination...

As a Christian, I see it as one of the surest signs that Jesus' return can't be very far away.

Posted by: Bob | Oct 20, 2010 5:33:23 PM

Don't worry, I know what a straw man is :)

Of course their sins should not define them! That's exactly the anti argument!

However, if a person who occasionally succumbs to homosexual issues (or frequently) chooses to define himself as "Gay" or "Homosexual", then the labeling is being done by him. When he takes part in a parade declaring that he's proud of his orientation, he's made it into an essential part of his being, and not just a (shameful) admission of failure.

As such, he is no better than someone whose identity is "Pig Eater" or "Bigamist". All three, IMHO, are equally guilty of choosing to identify themselves not as people who've sinned, but sinners.

The real strawman here, by the way, is his mentioning Pat Robertson. Many people, myself included, do view homosexuality as a sin, but we also view someone who eats pork (for Jews). Any person who is committed to an ideal, and strives to improve himself, is to be commended, even if he fails. Anyone who rationalizes his failings as insignificant or negligible and stops striving is not to be emulated, regardless of what the failing is.

Incidentally, regarding your comments that "Personally, I find it far more damaging to the cohesiveness of the Jewish community when we run after, fawn on, and honor wealthy donors who publicly violate the sabbath," I agree 100%. You do realize, however, that this comment puts you much more inline with the Chardal, if not Chareidi, communities, than with your own Modern Orthodox / Dati Leumi community. From my perspective, although not Pat Robertsons, you can replace everything I've written about Homosexuals with Mechalelei Shabbos and I will stand by it.

[Note that I did, in my original post, mentions several reasons why homosexuality may in fact be worse than pork. Indeed, niddah may also be worse than pork (both are included in the "big three"); comparing niddah and homosexuality would involve proofs such as the Targum Onkelos sited, which I understand some may prefer not to rely on]

Posted by: Mike Miller | Oct 20, 2010 5:56:27 PM

Jack... In fairness, if you don't accept the Torah as divine, then we can't really have a reasonable discussion of the central issues that Rabbi Boteach is making. They are the 613 mitzvoth, not the 613 suggestions.

I disagree, we can still discuss it. However it requires a different sort of beginning to it. My big issue is pretty simple. If we believe that homosexuality is not a choice than I have to ask myself several questions.

We're instructed to be fruitful and to multiply. It makes no sense to me to have a God who would create such a huge stumbling block here. I know, theoretically we could make a case about why are some people blind or born with birth defects. But I don't see this as being in the same category

It just makes no sense to establish commandments that are going to be so fundamentally challenging for some people. It is not the same as the laws regarding kashrut

When we talk about Shalom Bayit I can't help but think that this creates a huge issue. I'll provide an example. My sister has a very dear friend whose father is gay. Except for 30 years he was married to a woman who he loved and cared about but eventually divorced because he wanted to be in love with someone he was attracted to. Kind of hard to try and have a happy home when you feel like you are living a lie.

Posted by: Jack | Oct 20, 2010 6:55:46 PM

We all were born with a sinful nature. Some struggle with homosexuality, others with adultery, still others with stealing, cheating, lying, etc. The "Thou shalt nots" were not given lightly. If God gave us the commandments, He also gave us the capability to obey them. He will one day judge us by those very commandments.

Posted by: Dina | Oct 21, 2010 7:22:18 AM

Thanks for discussing this issue. Rabbi Boteach has carved out a unique public voice that sits somewhere between the Aguda movement and the Conservative movement. By providing alternative approaches, his essays enable those who are searching to find a place within Judaism. Whether you agree with him or not, his message resonates with at least some portion of the jewish population.

Re: Homosexuality and the Torah, the jewish tradition picks and chooses from the torah and clearly has a predilection to highlight certain acts while obscuring others. Rav Kook felt that the nation of Israel was preeminent and too precedence over other issues such as men and women working together and even shabbat observance. Others at the time and to the present day disagree.

Judaism is a religion in flux, particularly now. The Internet (and this blog is an integral part of that movement) has opened up resources and discussions that have lain fallow for hundreds of years, or in some cases, where discussed only by the very cream of religious society. Is this a good thing? The jury is out. Only time will tell if Judaism follows the Boteach approach, the Aguda approach, or something wildly different.

We live in interesting times!

Posted by: edge | Oct 22, 2010 9:17:06 AM

"I am in favor of gay civil unions rather than marriage because I am against redefining marriage. But gay marriage doesn’t represent the end of Western civilization."

"Civil unions" are something of a red herring.

All marriages in the US are by definition "civil unions" since they require the imprimatur of the state; every priest, minister, rabbi et al needs to be licensed to perform a marriage, as does any lay person.

Once the government(s) created the two-track systems called "marriage" and "civil unions" they (albeit with the best of intentions) created the inevitability of gay marriages. One cannot have, under the Constitution, "separate but (not quite)equal" unions.

If the state is willing to recognize a gay "union" then there is no Constitutional bar against gay marriage....nor should there be.

Religious "marriage" meaning that which is performed in a church, a synagogue, a mosque, etc. should be left to each rite's own internal decisions. If a gay couple wishes to have a marriage ceremony inside the local Catholic church, that church has the right to deny them that ceremony in that location just as they would deny it to non-Catholics because they do not adhere to Catholic teaching. That would not deprive the gay couple of the right to "marry" which they could do under the proposed amendments to the law--it merely deprives them of the right to marry in certain locales by certain religious leaders. This way, congregations which strongly feel that they cannot condone gay marriages are free to close their institutions to them; and others who feel differently can open their places of worship and make gays and lesbians welcome.

We don't need to "redefine marriage" -- currently we don't distinguish in heterosexual marriages between people who marry in religious ceremonies and people who are married by a justice of the peace. They're simply "married."
It should be the same with gay couples.

Maybe it's because I grew up in the SF area, but I know a lot of openly gay and lesbian people. I also know from talking to them that no one "chooses" to be gay or lesbian. Given a choice, most of them would gladly have given up the agonizing teen years in which they realized that they were "different;" they would never have opted to be estranged from friends and family members who can't deal with their homosexuality; one friend of mine spent years as a teen drunk and run-away because she was sure her family would disown her--and thankfully they did not when she finally called from California after cleaning up, getting her degree and a job and a partner, and told them she was a lesbian. No one wishes to go through what gay and lesbian teens and adults go through in this country, whether its being beaten to death or harassed into suicide. Being gay is no more of a "choice" than being born with green eyes is a choice. No one should be punished for being born as G-d made them.

Bravo, David, for getting this out there. I hope it lessens the hatred and self-rightousness that accrue against gays and lesbians, who are as much G-d's children as the rest of us.

Posted by: aliyah06 | Oct 23, 2010 11:31:26 PM

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