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Posts for January, 2012

The Torah Declaration: Orthodox Judaism’s impossible position

Timothy Kincaid

January 18th, 2012

One of the more fascinating things to watch is the peculiar struggle that Orthodox Jews are going though in their effort to determine where gay Jews fit in the world, the family, and the tribe.

While conservative Christians may be content with “well the Bible says”, the Jewish tradition requires that an observant Jew carefully seek to understand the nuances of the Torah, the realities of the world, the condition of their own heart, run it through the sieve of tradition, and come to a place that reflects G-d’s intention.

Sometimes this can be a bit absurd, like the determination that if one uses a pen for work, then any use of a pen – even moving a pen so as to read a book it lies on – is forbidden on the Sabbath (my apologies if I got that wrong). But that’s a Jewish issue and doesn’t need to make sense to a goy fagela.

But it also can have subtleties that “well the Bible says” simply cannot handle. Take, for example, Rabbi Zev Farber discussion about the “morality question”:

Unfortunately, much of the rhetoric traditionally surrounding homosexuality seems to derive from a confusion of categories. For the believing Orthodox Jew, homosexual congress is a religious offense, akin to eating shrimp or driving on the Sabbath. It is not a moral offense, akin to assaulting women or cheating in business. Much of the rhetoric around homosexuality seems to center on moral discourse, and I feel this is a serious mistake.

But Farber is on one end of the spectrum. And in times of uncertainty on issues of discomfort, extremes arise. And within Orthodox Judaism, there are some pretty drastic extremes, especially on the subject of homosexuality. Peter LaBarbera’s hate-fest yesterday was endorsed by Rabbi Yehuda Levin’s Rabbinical Alliance of America / Igud Harabbonim. And we all know of the ultra-Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn who show up to protest gay marriage, usually toting signs that make little sense to anyone outside their particular community.

But even crazy sign-wielding Jews who seek to condemn the gay community and deny gay people of civil equality hold to the Jewish tradition of intellectual approach. And so it is with an appeal to logic that the more conservative wing of Orthodox Judaism presented their latest anti-gay screed, the Torah Declaration:

Same-Sex Attractions Can Be Modified And Healed

From a Torah perspective, the question whether homosexual inclinations and behaviors are changeable is extremely relevant. The concept that G-d created a human being who is unable to find happiness in a loving relationship unless he violates a biblical prohibition is neither plausible nor acceptable. G-d is loving and merciful. Struggles, and yes, difficult struggles, along with healing and personal growth are part and parcel of this world. Impossible, life long, Torah prohibited situations with no achievable solutions are not.

We emphatically reject the notion that a homosexually inclined person cannot overcome his or her inclination and desire. Behaviors are changeable. The Torah does not forbid something which is impossible to avoid. Abandoning people to lifelong loneliness and despair by denying all hope of overcoming and healing their same-sex attraction is heartlessly cruel. Such an attitude also violates the biblical prohibition in Vayikra (Leviticus) 19:14 “and you shall not place a stumbling block before the blind.”

This is actually similar to the thought process I utilized when dealing with my own sexuality and spirituality. Mine went something like: 1) God created me same-sex attracted; 2) Despite my best efforts and sincere prayers He seems to have no intention of changing me; 3) therefore either 3a) God is perfectly fine with me the way I am, or 3b) God is a monster. (And yes I know, atheists, that “God doesn’t exist” also works as a possible 3c.)

The logic in the Torah Declaration ultimately leads to the same paradox which I found. In the words of the Declaration, the following concepts all must stand in order for there to be logic and consistency:

  • The Torah makes a clear statement that homosexuality is not an acceptable lifestyle or a genuine identity by severely prohibiting its conduct.
  • G-d is loving and merciful. The concept that G-d created a human being who is unable to find happiness in a loving relationship unless he violates a biblical prohibition is neither plausible nor acceptable. Abandoning people to lifelong loneliness and despair by denying all hope of overcoming and healing their same-sex attraction is heartlessly cruel.
  • Same-sex attractions can be modified and healed. The Torah does not forbid something which is impossible to avoid. The only viable course of action that is consistent with the Torah is therapy and teshuvah. The therapy consists of reinforcing the natural gender-identity of the individual by helping him or her understand and repair the emotional wounds that led to its disorientation and weakening, thus enabling the resumption and completion of the individual’s emotional development.

But with this declaration, the ultra-Orthodox rabbis have backed themselves into a corner. They have placed their interpretation of G-d’s intent in the Torah subject to an objectively testable reality: reorientation.

Unlike other prohibitions – dietary law, for example – they have not made this a Jewish issue that can be resolved by “it may not make sense to you but this is what G-d said”. They expressly contradicted the position taken by the Statement of Principles of some less extremely conservative Orthodox Jews a year before that declared that while G-d might have created innately same-sex attracted persons, they should nevertheless remain celibate.

Rather they have declared that it is not possible that God would have simultaneously banned same-sex relationships and created humans who naturally, innately, and irreparably long for them. They recognize this to be heartlessly cruel. On this, they are right.

So, having worked out their logic they signed the declaration. Reorientation is the solution. Done.

But they have one little problem. Reorientation doesn’t work. And eventually these rabbis will have to come to that realization. There are far too many orthodox therapists and researchers and professors who value objective reality over rabbinical declarations.

And if these rabbis plug their ears and insist that – contrary to all evidence – reorientation works, they may find themselves without congregations. And that is exactly what happened in the Netherlands.

According to the Jerusalem Post, the Orthodox community in Amsterdam suspended their chief rabbi from his post after he signed the Torah Declaration. Disavowing the notion of reorientation, they issued a press release lest “Rabbi Ralbag’s signature may give the impression the Orthodox Jewish community of Amsterdam shares his view.” Rabbi Aryeh Ralbag (who appears to be headquarted in Brooklyn) was relieved of his duties until he goes to Amesterdam and “discusses the issue.”

And they will not be the last congregation to point out that it ain’t working. And then what? Unlike their less strident brothers, these rabbis are left with only two options. Either God is heartlessly cruel or the Torah’s statement on homosexuality may not be so clear after all.

Of these, it would seem to me that finding nuance in the Torah’s prohibitions might be the likelier eventuality.