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The ground-breaking, illuminating essay you are about to read below specifically addresses the religious, social, and legal issues that are of concern to lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals seeking marriage commitments within the Jewish community. Though written with the Orthodox and Conservative movements of Judaism in mind, the teaching within this essay is for all Jews and is clearly not limited to just the Jewish people. It applies equally to all people who love differently and to those who love these people. If you are in this social category, then this essay is a must read!
Jews and Alternative Lifestyles clearly demonstrates that halakhically (by Jewish Law) the Torah demands the sanctification of gay, lesbian, and bisexual marriages, and further encourages the entire Jewish community to support the civil and sacred responsibilities of edifying committed relationships. This essay is very detailed, covering all the arguments thoroughly, thus it will take about an hour to read. But, reading it will deeply educate you on this subject and most likely change your life for the better. For the sake of tsedek/justice within our midst, I present to you….
Jews and Alternative Lifestyles: A Halakhic Proposition for the Orthodox Jew
By Joseph Tsefanyahu Farkasdi
As a traditional Jew who is very aware of the emotional controversy within our culture over gays and halakha (religious-civil law), which forbids the acting out of homosexual tendencies, and the growing voice of those who love differently within our communities, I wish to offer a perspective that badly needs to be heard. I have given this subject matter a lot of thought and research, and I urge you to consider now what I have to share. Most of us, if not all, have been taught that homosexual relations (specifically between men) are forbidden by the Torah. But, what if it might just be possible to clearly demonstrate halakhically that the Torah does not prohibit all homosexual relations between men?
I would suggest that if we are really interested in addressing the Jewish community’s concerns over homosexuality, especially among the more traditional communities, and how to relate with homosexual and bisexual Jews within our midst, we need to open our minds to the possibility that we are interpreting mitzvot (legal obligations) within the cultural mindset of our times. A moral mindset that the ancient Jews of the Torah might not have necessarily shared or intended in its total present form as we understand it today. If you’ll allow me, within this essay I will attempt to clearly demonstrate this difference in understanding and interpretation between the ancient view and the modern over what is considered forbidden sexual acts between men. I will also propose for discussion, a potential halakhic ruling that will bring kedusha (holiness) into the committed relationships of individuals who’s intimate relationships are presently in violation of halakha.
In the next few paragraphs we are about to journey into the reasons homosexuality is an issue to begin with, and what the ancient BC Era thinking really was on this subject. We will then get into the specific laws of Torah that has been used to justify modern Jewish denouncement of same-sex relations. And, with accuracy and honesty I hope, provide discussion that will allow us to view these mitzvot in the manner that the ancients viewed them, a manner we can then compare to our modern interpretation. To achieve this, we must go to the sources of halakha – the Talmud (the early C.E. rabbinical rulings) and the TaNaKH (commonly known as the Jewish Bible). Even more specifically, we must go to the heart and address the Torah (literally, the Teaching), which contain the legal customs of our people and set the stage for all further halakha. I must warn you now, you might find yourself having to suspend for a moment the way you are accustomed to viewing the world. I ask and encourage that together we do just this. With this said, let’s us begin.
The Source of Jewish Concern
The very first step to achieving the above objectives is to first address the Jewish social-emotional uneasiness that makes the issue of homosexuality such a touchy topic to begin with. In the more halakhic emphasizing communities, there are generally two outward responses to raising of same-sex questions in relation to halakha. One is to avoid the subject as best as possible, deeming it an irrelevant issue sense the halakha is so clear on the matter. And, the other is to have sympathy for those challenged with this issue, but firmly re-iterating the present halakhic stand that forbids homogenital relations without further discussion or analysis. The I truly feel sorry for you, wish I could do something, but there is nothing we can really do for you – other than to offer life-long abstinence or a relationship that comes in contrast with the inner inclination. But, these are outward expressions, and it is important to have some kind of understanding of what is at the heart of such unwillingness to argue the halakha (a trade-mark of our people) when it pertains to homosexuality.
We are an ethnicity that highly values the concept of family. So much so, that the very first blessing given to humans within the Torah, which traditionally has been accepted as a sacred obligation, is to be fruitful and multiply. And, one of the sacred tenets behind this obligation to have children is so that we may pass down the Covenant of our people with G!D through the unbroken chain of parent to child, generation to generation. The obvious reality is that no children will be born through a same-sex relationship. At least, not without a surrogate of some sort (a separate halakhic issue among strict observers). It is also greatly emphasized within our tradition the important roles given to fathers and mothers. Jewish tradition is established around the family in such a way that it is extremely hard for traditional Jews to see redeeming value in a relationship that involves two people of the same gender. Not to mention, the fast held belief that a child deserves at the very minimum a father (male) and a mother (female). And, though I happen to agree with the latter, I do not take lightly the need to find a truly workable solution for those who are unable to fulfill the relationship lifestyle pursued by the majority of Jews.
The usual halakhic response to a Jew “coming out” about his gayness is to first encourage his keeping it a secret, getting married, and raising children. If the gay Jew is unable or unwilling to do this, the encouragement is to remain relationship-less (celibate). But, neither of these encouragements raises sparks of holiness from within the individuals affected, and creates potential un-holiness within family relationships when the first response is acted upon. We are not going to get into the endless debate over whether gayness is a choice or fact of biology. Enough commentary on this is available to those who wish to inform their own personal view. Whether by choice, by act of nature, or by deliberate design of G!D, the issues in gay and bisexual male lives is the same. There is a very real sexual attraction to those of the same sex, which draws these individuals to not only want to be physically intimate with other males, but to seek emotional and long-term relationship-oriented commitments with the male they have found attraction towards.
Denying homosexuals a halakhic way to recognize and honor their committed, fidelitous relationships is not going to change the reality of their forming same-sex relationships. In this age of democracy, wherein it is now a real possibility for homosexuals to conceive of and create family-oriented same-sex marriage relationships (simply not conceivable of in the B.C. era or early C.E.), it is becoming less and less of a reality for gay Jewish males to opt for the encouraged closeted lifestyle preferred by the community. Knowing that it is now possible to have a fulfilling relationship with the partner of your choice, many Jewish homosexuals are having to make the decision in their lives whether to deny ones inner needs for the sake of avoiding social scrutiny and judgment, or to seek wholeness and fulfillment through relationship – even if this means separating oneself from the Jewish community.
Further, it does not benefit the halakhic Jewish community to encourage or require that gay males get married in the traditional sense (to a woman) to preserve the continuity of modern Jewish tradition. The reason for this is simple. Though children will be born within most of these compromised relationships, there are two factors that impede these relationships from being a relationship in kedusha (a state of holiness). The first is the deception the gay male carries into and maintains throughout the marriage life. He harbors a secret that for the sake of his wife and family he keeps hidden unto himself. Thus, they may relate with each other and even have children, but they do not really “know” each other as the Torah encourages. The possibility of secretive gay affairs occurring on the side, without the wife and children’s knowledge, is high. And, when these affairs happen, the issue of gayness does now become an issue comparable with adultery.
Even if the gay husband manages to remain disciplined against his inner inclination and not have same-sex relationships on the side, there is still yet another issue. He’s having procreative sex with his wife, but during this most sacred of activities, the act of lovemaking, he’s often fantasizing about a man and projecting this image of a man upon his wife to reach an orgasm. This disrespects the rights of his wife, in that he is obligated by mitzvot to please her emotional-sexual needs. Further, it outright disrespects her as an individual and the children that are brought forth from this type of relationship. And, this is understandably an issue of concern for homosexual Jews who are weighing their options for a holy relationship that can and will be blessed by the community.
Is it really a wise approach to encourage relationships that are based on an outward deception for the sake of avoiding disapproval from the greater community? At, the very least and for sake of encouraging a family life where openness and intimacy is not simply imitated, it then makes sense that we should clearly encourage a gay male to admit his homosexual tendencies before getting married. But, then, what woman would marry him after such an admission? Children pick-up on the difference between false and genuine family oneness very early in life. They have an uncanny way of knowing when things are not quite right with mommy and daddy, and they will learn the habits of keeping secrets just from their daily observation of their parent’s behavior. And, though they may not share it directly, it has an effect upon their development – their feelings and attitudes towards family relationships, towards themselves as individuals, and towards their Jewishness. From a halakhic standpoint and for the sake of kedusha, the traditional options provided as a response towards the homosexual Jew’s desire for a sanctified relationship does not achieve the highest standard we as a covenanted people strive for.
Looking for the Whole Picture
For us to achieve a halakhic response to the needs of homosexual and bisexual Jews, we must be careful to base our decision in such a way that it becomes an act of tsedek/justice and parnasah/livelihood, rather than a mere act of mishpat – looking at the lettering of the law and not weighing in real human factors. To achieve this, it is necessary for us to consider the deeper sides of human nature before studying the applicable laws and attempting to render a halakhic decision. This is well understood among Rabbis and scholars alike, and Jewish tradition has throughout strongly emphasized this approach. Above we have addressed real human concerns over the desires of homosexual Jews. We must now weigh the modern issue of homosexual Jews seeking a sanctified same-sex committed relationship in light of what the sacred Teaching presents to us. So, what does the TaNaKH really have to say about homo-genital behavior?
In Bereshith 19.1-11, we read:
“The two messengers came to Sedom at sunset, as Lot was sitting at the gate of Sedom. When Lot saw them, he arose to meet them and bowed low, brow to the ground and said: Now pray, my lords, pray turn aside to your servant’s house, spend the night, wash your feet; (starting-early) you may go on your way.
They said: No, rather we will spend the night in the square. But he pressed them exceedingly hard, so they turned in to him and came into his house. He made them a meal-with-drink and baked flat-cakes, and they ate.
They had not yet lain down, when the men of the city, the men of Sedom, encircled the house, from young lad to old man, all the people (even) from the outskirts.
They called out to Lot and said to him: Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, we want to know them!”
In this passage the Hebrew use of `we want to know them’ is unmistakably an intent on the part of the men of Sedom to be sexual with the messengers that Lot has taken into his home for the night.
“Lot went out to them, to the entrance, shutting the door behind him and said: Pray, brothers, do not be so wicked! Now pray, I have two daughters who have never known a man, pray let me bring them out to you, and you may deal with them however seems good in your eyes; only to these men do nothing, for they have, after all, come under the shadow of my roof-beam!
But they said: Step aside! and said: This one came to sojourn and (wants to) judge, play-the-judge?! Now we will do worse to you than (to) them! And they pressed exceedingly hard against the man, against Lot, and stepped closer to break the down the door.
But the men put out their hand and brought Lot in to them, into the house, and shut the door. And the men who were at the entrance to the house, they struck with dazzling-light — (all men) great and small, so that they were unable to find the entrance.”
What is this story about? Is it about the wrongness of men having sexual intercourse with men? Or, is the use of sexuality in this passage, and extremely intimate act, designed to emphasize an extremely important point on proper Jewish etiquette towards strangers? Note the use of the words “all the men” in this legend, men “from every area of the city” seeking to have sex with the messengers that Lot has taken in. A clear indication that this story is not about homogenitally driven men, but rather about the character of the men of this city in general. So, what is the message this legend is designed to teach us?
In the commetary section of the Artscroll Chumash, used by traditional Jews, for Parashas Vayeira (the section of Torah that shares this legend) we read the following:
“… their reason for so mistreating strangers was to keep impoverished fortune-seekers away. The Sodomites were notorious for every kind of wickedness, but their fate was sealed because of their selfishness in not helping the poor and needy…”
Whether they regularly engaged in the practice of raping strangers who entered the city or just lost their heads in hate for these particular messengers, the sin acted out is rather self-evident. On one hand, we have Lot who demonstrates extreme hospitality for his guests and, on the other hand, we have every male of the city converging on Lot’s home with the sole purpose of committing rape in mind. The message is clear that they possess extreme inhospitableness towards others, and that this is a grave sin – worthy of death and destruction.
The prophet Ezekiel (16.49-50) expresses the sin of Sedom as being a moral wrongness, with no allusion to right or wrongness of homo-genital behavior:
“Only this was the sin of your sister Sodom: arrogance! She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility; yet she did not support the poor and the needy. In their haughtiness, they committed abomination before Me; and so I removed them, as you saw.”
The issue the Torah raises in this story of the fall of two great cities is the issue of hatred toward others. And, the extremeness of their hate is demonstrated by their attempt to physically rape the messengers that came to their city. The use of sexual rape in this story is very specific and clear, and does not give evidence to an overall Torah disapproval of intimate male-male sexuality. For this we must look elsewhere.
So, we move on into Nevi’im (the Prophets), specifically the book of Judges (19.22-29), to find the only other story in the TaNaKH that specifically alludes to an attempt by men to engage in sexual intercourse with other men. This is a story that replicates the events of Sedom, and only makes more clear the TaNaKH’s concern in regards to sexuality between males:
“While they were enjoying themselves, the men of the town, a depraved lot, had gathered about the house and were pounding on the door. They called to the aged owner of the house, `Bring out the man who has come into your house, so that we can be intimate with him’.”
Again, as in the Sedom story, the intent of these men is clearly sexual and their unfolding sin is the same as with the men of Sedom.
“The owner of the house went out and said to them, `Please, my friends, do not commit such a wrong. Since this man has entered my house, do not perpetrate this outrage. Look, here is my virgin daughter, and his concubine. Let me bring them out to you. Have your pleasure of them, do what you like with them; but don’t do that outrageous thing to this man.
But the men would not listen to him, so the man seized his concubine and pushed her out to them. They raped her and abused her all night long until morning; and they let her go when dawn broke.”
`Don’t do that outrageous thing’ is the cry of the old man and was the cry of Lot in Sedom. What was the outrageous thing? Hate demonstrated through sexual rape. The men of Gilbeah proved the `state of mind’ of the men of Sedom. When the man pushed his concubine out to them, they raped her all night long and left her where she lay – they left her to die. And, they were satisfied with this, even though their original intent was to rape him, the man. Again, the issue the Torah raises is not with gay sex itself, but with a specific misuse of sexual intercourse.
Maybe, to be even more direct, it can be said that the TaNaKH does not even really distinguish the difference between the act of a man having sexual intercourse with a man and a man have sexual intercourse with a woman, beyond the obvious fact that a woman will become pregnant from this. At this time, I’m strictly talking about the physical act itself of penetrating into the inwards of one who is or has become submissive or submitted. Disregarding for a moment the social issues of men’s higher status in those times, to the TaNaKH the act of sexually penetrating is the same act regardless who has been submitted to this act, because the focus is on the use of the male reproductive organ. So much so, that the above story clearly demonstrates this with the men of Gilbeah not being concerned whether it is aperture of a man’s rear or of a woman’s vagina that they are raping. In their case as with Sedom, it’s all about the act of forced penetration – the rendering of a human to a state of helplessness, shame, and impotence. Another issue this passage reveals about the ancient mind set concerning the physical act of sexuality is that the TaNaKH does not distinguish between orientations (example, homosexual verses heterosexual).
If we were to look upon just the sexual aspect of this story, disregarding the rapist mentality for a moment, the book of Judges clearly demonstrates the men of Gilbeah as being capable of being fluid in their sexuality, capable and willing to have sex outside of the set rules of culture (for example, with women only) and achieve sexual satisfaction from this. Using our modern science-based terms for this, these men are in their ability to “get it up” neither heterosexual nor homosexual in nature, but rather bisexual. Can it be demonstrated that the Torah has a general lack of knowledge of either/or when it comes to what men find sexually arousing? That possibly the ancient worldview simply recognized that the basic sexual nature of man allowed for the desire to be sexually engaged with women, men, children, and beasts? And, hence the reason for any and all of the sexual mitzvot – to help guide the fluidly multi-sexual-oriented males to curbing their sexuality to a more stringent and specified, and thus holy, determined number of acts?
Consider the time frame in which this sacred text was written. The social dichotomies of what is `right and wrong’, of what is `natural and unnatural’, that are socially imbued from birth and thus generally taken for granted in our time, was only just being “institutionalized” in the time of the Torah. The point being made here is that the Torah views each and every male as being capable and inclined to transgressing every sexual prohibition binding upon Jewish males. Hence, possibly, the need to penalize for such “inappropriate” behaviors with either banishment or death. In our time, such punishments are not really necessary, because everybody just knows that a man having sex with a man is outright wrong – right? Or, is it that this is what we are being taught?!