Monday, September 24, 2007

The Gay Thing and Yom Kippur

The whole homosexuality issue, which comes up with the Yom Kippur Torah reading (why more than adultery or relations during niddah?), is a difficult thing to deal with. It has come up on Hirhurim; I thought I’d put together some review and my thoughts.

Commenter (Chakira) made the point that it seems sadistic of God to create beings whose essence is forbidden by the Torah. Another commenter, Gandalin pointed out that this was affected by Freud’s position (in Civilization and its Discontents) that we should accept only those Divine "commandments" which are in accord with what you perceive as our underlying composition.

I pointed out, rather:

that even the Freudian interpretation doesn't seem to correspond to the Torah's reality, at least as understood by a number of admitted homosexuals of my acquaintance. It's not the total suppression of gay activity, it's the d'oraita suppression of one specific act.

In that, it parallels exactly every other activity that is regulated by the Torah - some forms are permitted (your wife), others are prohibited (your wife's sister). So too here, the argument is made that the Torah forbids one act, but that other acts are at most forbidden rabbinically, and if one is (Freudially?) created with such urges, then the existential nature of the desire overrides the rabbinic prohibitions for them. Homosexual activity for those who are otherwise attracted to women (that would necessarily include bisexuals), would be right out, both rabbinically and toraitically.

That reasoning addresses acts, not inclinations. Very few mitzvot address inclinations. But we don't see massive public opprobrium of men who say they're attracted to other women.

It seems to me, then, that between the ideas of chezkat kashrut and dan lekaf zechut, we should not assume that homosexuals are breaking any laws, and thus should not reject them davka for having the inclination and daring to talk about it. Chibuk venishuk in public is just as much a problem, halachically, for heterosexuals as homosexuals, but we don't see a lot of social rejection of a married couple who hold hands or embrace in public.

Gil’s response to the sadistic-God was “look at the AIDS baby”. Which is, it seems, not so much a response to homosexuality being forbidden, but to the idea of mamzer (being the parents’ fault). God being by definition Good, the AIDS baby is not God’s fault and God’s fault alone, but the parents’ failure. Or does Gil subscribe to the (outdated) theory that homosexuality is the result of a poor home life, frigid mother, etc.?

Commenter Gandalin calls our attention to R’ Steve Greenberg’s prayer on behalf of Jewish homosexuals for Yom Kippur, at the Social Action website. He decries how Greenberg has fallen into “the cult of victimization.”

But victimization is a big part of Judaism. Even apart from the Holocaust industry, where the Holocaust has been elevated to the center of American Jewish identity for far too many Jews, victimization is a very large part of our identity.

I suppose Greenberg fails in that he stops at the victimization, rather than, as RYBS might have put it, what does the victim status motivate me to *do*?

After all, we do obsess on victimhood - oppressed by Lavan, slaves in Egypt, exiled by God twice, our city, temple and land destroyed, bash our enemies' children as they did to ours, Muslim invasions, Crusader invasions which destroyed the ancient community of Eretz Yisrael, Cossacks, N_zis, lots and lots of others.

But we go through to the other side, and talk about how this is punishment for our sins, so it has to motivate us to do mitzvos. Also, as we have always been victims, we must sympathize with, and support, other victims. Whether as darchei sholom - sympathy, or as mipnei eivah - so as not to be further victimized, our victim status motivates our charitable giving, transforms it from an act of individual generosity (karitas) into an act of righteousness, doing our Divinely-assigned work in the world, restoring balance.

Reading over Greenberg's prayer, he also fails in that he seems to create a "burning-times" myth, of thousands of years of oppression, and thousands of deaths at the hands of, the Torah Jewish community. In reality, the social oppression of homosexuals is quite recent, probably mostly coinciding with the rise of a "gay lifestyle" - shove it in our faces, we react with horror as we did to Reform shoving their non-observance of Shabbos in our faces. If there had been big social opposition to homosexuality, surely it would have appeared in the Gemara and Responsa literature?

Some have noted that Greenberg has departed from Orthodoxy in his halachic reasoning in “Wrestling with God and Man”. Perhaps he has, but he continues to identify with the Orthodox, and the issues he raises, while many of us may not like his answers, do call for being addressed.

It's a difficult issue, in many ways.


Mike S. said...

The phrase "whose essence is forbidden by the Torah" is making an assumption which is largely driven by Freudian perspective and seems to me to be contrary to the Torah. As the Rambam's well known explanation of "Kofin Oto ad sheomer rotzeh ani" (The beit din beats a man who, when required by a beit din, refuses to give a get until he says 'I want to') makes clear, we are, in our deepest essence servants of Hashem, yearning for closeness with the Divine. As Mesillat Yesharim puts it, the world was created so God could give his creations the pleasure of His Presence. Our physical urges, of whatever nature, are not our essence, but are either distractions we must overcome or tools we must use in our quest for the Divine.

thanbo said...

I don't see that as driven by Freudian perspectives at all - the Freudian position as posted on Hirhurim had to do with the feeling whether one is commanded in a particular mitzvah. The mitzvah exists, but if there's room for a heter, there's room for a heter.

Since I can't believe that God would create a person without any permissible way to express hir sexuality, there has to be room in Torah for some form of expression. We don't see Torah forbidding all food to a person for life, or forbidding all air to a person for life. At most, internal drives are suppressed for a limited time (no sex before marriage) or for a limited subset of activity (no meat/milk, no sex with your wife's sister).

Where else does Torah totally eliminate an entire basic activity?
Our physical urges are part of our makeup, whether physical or psychological. The almost complete lack of success of attempts to change homosexuals to heterosexuals through psychotherapy, seems to indicate that it's physiological in origin.

As one rav put it to me, in rejecting the "homosexuals have a heter" argument, "I have an urge to run after anything in a skirt". But the fallacy there is that he *has* an outlet - his wife. And if he's unsatisfied in marriage, maybe it's to the wrong partner, so again he has a recourse - divorce and remarriage. The homosexual has no such alternative, at least as many/most would have the Torah position.

How can one who is totally forbidden by God to eat, enjoy the Divine Presence?

Mike S. said...

My perspective is perhaps shaped in part by being old enough to remember when it was common for homosexual men to marry (women.) I knew a number, some of whom were, as is now said, "in the open" and some who were "in the closet" and came out only after being widowed. These men managed at least enough of a sex with their wives life to father children.

Even today and in Massachusetts I know at least two openly gay men who are married to women because they and their wives value having a (more or less) traditinal family above their sexual desires.

thanbo said...

Yes, I would say that in that case the mitzva in full would apply to those men. I was talking only about the miut shebemiut of men who can't have sexual satisfaction in the normal way. You're talking about, essentially, bisexuals, even if their main attraction is towards inappropriate partners.

The rules can't be written for such a small miut (much less than the 10% figure often quoted), lo plug etc., but most rabbinic halachot do have room for exceptions in real-life situtations.

Gandalin said...


Thanks for continuing this discussion on your blog here. The idea that a particular sexual activity defines a person's essence seems very 20th century, doesn't it? Any more than "you are what you eat." If it does not do violence to a person's essence to rather rigorously organize one's diet (and not only Yidden do this, I think C. Levi-Strauss and others point out that every society organizes diet into categories of edible and inedible, etc.,) then why should the sexual regulations do violence to a person's real essence?

thanbo said...

No, no, you have it exactly backwards. The essence determines which activities will work for a person or not. If Joe Shmo can't get it up for a woman, but can for a man, that's his essence driving his activity. And if the essence is physiological, hence existential, God-created, there has to be some accommodation in halacha (as long as no other is harmed by what the person's essence drives him to). Which, I realize, sounds like the Wiccan Rede: an it harm none, do what thou wilt. Except that for us, the difference between what we will, and what we do, is necessarily regulated by halacha.

The big problem is that those who would ostracize homosexuals in Judaism, let alone say that all non "needle in reed" activity is completely forbidden, do define the person by his yetzer hara, define the person by a forbidden activity, and impute that activity to them because of what they say their activity is.

Do you not see how that is two-three steps removed from reality? 1) forbidden act from Torah, 2) other acts which maybe rabbinically forbidden, 3) inclination, 4) what they tell people about activities. It's a long way from "I'm gay" to "I engage in a. sex which everybody agrees is assur min hatorah." But general Jewish society, like general society, brings the "ick" factor into play, and reviles the one who says to have the inclination, as if he did the most despicable acts.

Gandalin said...

I think we're using the word "essence" in essentially different ways.

You seem to be referring to the underlying characterological forces which compel certain behaviors as their "essence" whereas I am using the term "essence" to refer to the underlying "betzelem-Hashem-ness" which defines a human being.

The development of a "community" of individuals whose identity is based on what sort of sexual activities in which they engage is surely a novel 20th century phenomenon.

Moreover, the desirability of avoiding the unnecessary ostracism of these individuals does not in my opinion necessarily lead to the antinomian decision to declare permissibile what is forbidden, nor to designate as normative what is not normal.

Because you want those with homosexual inclinations to be treated by the community with understanding and compassion, does not necessarily mean you have to endorse their actual behavior, nor that you need to reject 3,000 years or more of consistent tradition in this area.

Let me add that there are many emotions, compulsions, and behaviors that although obviously ultimately created by the Creator, derive from the sitra achra or the klipot, rather than the "essence," and I would be surprised if you would want to claim that for example (pardom an extreme example whcih I use to make an extreme rhetorical point) Jeffrey Dahmer's (yimach shemo) compulsive sadomasochistic homosexual cannibalism was "given" to him or "created" in him by Hashem, and therefore must be tolerated, respected, and even encouraged.

Is the Wiccan Rede (also a 20th century invention, by the way) any different from the so-called "Golden Rule" which is found in nearly every philosophical-ethical tradition? It is an inadequate and insufficient guide to ethical behavior, because it leaves open the definition, for one thing, of "harm." What does it mean to say, "an it harm none?" Who defines harm?

Finally, the fact that you or I can't believe that Hashem would create a person one way or the other, says more about you and I than it really does about Hashem. As we learn in the Book of Iyov, Hashem is not bound by our conceptions and perceptions. Again, an unfair and inconsiderate example, but what do you learn from the evident fact that Hashem tortured and incinerated millions of Yidden in the Shoah? What about the Tsunami? We are on very shaky ground, and it is ground that throughout history leads to apikorsus and worse, when we try to force Hashem to be justified within the four amos of our limited perspectives.

thanbo said...

I don't see this as a real theodicy problem, because theodicy-evil generally seems to imply harm - to the self or others.

Sure the Wiccan Rede is a 20th-century invention, but I put it out there as a humanization of Crowley's pure antinomianism, which is what some of my correspondents seemed to be accusing me of, in bringing up child-molestation. Bring me a ridiculous irrelevancy, I'll show him how even contemporary antinomians avoid the problem.

And yes, as you say, Hashem is not bound by our ideas and preconceptions. By the same token, His halacha is not bound by the "ick factor". Heterim in exceptional cases are part of the system, not antinomian.

"sitra achra or klipot" Oh, you have to invoke kabbalah to explain emotions and drives defined as illegal? Sorry, that won't wash. Halacha was written down hundreds of years before kabbalah was invented.

We don't need to deal with a dualist good-evil system to excuse this kind of ick-factor. The drive for the wrong thing was imposed by God, as was the system of halacha under which we have to live. The two must be reconcilable. We can't excuse halacha's failure to deal with novel situations on non-God "evil forces" - that seems similar to the "galus mentality" that Yeshayahu Leibowitz used to decry. It's an excuse for not dealing with things, not a reason not to deal with them.

God made the world and all of us, God gave us the Torah as His will for the way the world should be. There is room to argue for heterim in exceptional cases, if the rabbis have the moral fortitude to overcome the ick factor in dealing with the novel situation of people who are no longer content to live dangerous secret sex lives.

Gandalin said...

Dear Thanbo,

I think it was you who elevated this discussion to the level of theodicy. FOr most of the previous discussants, it was a cut & dried matter of adhering to a revealed code.

Whether Kabbalah was "invented" after Halakhah doesn't seem that relevant to me, although I think that both were, at least ab initio, received rather than invented (by human beings). Be that as it may.

My point in bringing in the concepts of the sitra achra & the klipot, was that I think they help us explain to ourselves why the world appears to be the way the world appears to be. This does not appear to be a world of unalloyed good, nor of unalloyed pleasure.

Your Wiccan friends might prefer to refer to the dark side or the left hand path.

The point is not that there is necesdsarily anything evil in a toeivah. But every impulse that arises in the soul does not necessarily need to be put into action.

Let me go back to Freud's quibble with v'ahavta le're'acha kamocha.

He finds that this commandment makes no sense, because he can not find in himself any genuinely innate fellow-feeling or fraternal-feeling if you will, for his neighbor; Freud senses only the possibility of resentment and competition. He therefore finds that the commandment fails to resonate, it fails to appear to be an integral part of the natural human world. Freud asks: "If I love someone, he must deserve it in some way. . . .He deserves it if he is so like me in important ways that I can love myself in him; and he deserves it if he is so much more perfect than myself that I can love my ideal of my own self in him."

He goes on to say: "What is the point of a precept enunciated with so much solemnity if its fulfillment cannot be recommended as reasonable?" Because he knows: "men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among those whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him."

What he is missing is that it is precisely the unreasonableness of the precept, its other-worldiness, that bespeaks its Divine origin.

The purpose of the precept, and of the commandments in general, is not to ratify the animalistic existence of the corporeal human being, but to enable the spiritual human being to elevate the corporeal, and bring it into the realm of the sacred.

Whether it seems to be reasonable or not.

thanbo said...

What kind of Karaite worldview are you espousing? It's very black and white, where the halacha in which I live has lots of greys.

You keep talking about rejection of "precepts". Was Freud talking about the whole body of halacha, or just a few mitzvos that he tried to understand from verses? E.g., "love your neighbor" can mean all kinds of things, but only some are how Halacha has us deal with them.

So too here, nobody's rejecting the ikkar hadin mitzvah. The question arises regarding the fences around it, whether those fences are even truly rabbinic, or if they're engendered by an ick factor, or what.

There's been precious little actual exploration of the halacha here. It's almost impossible to find in the basic sources, possibly because it is an icky thing.

If it makes you feel better to reject a nuanced approach to halacha by dragging in Freud's rejection of a non-nuanced form, and your apparently necessary adoption of that worldview which Freud rejected, that's fine.

The fundamental problem appears to be that since open homosexuality is a recent (30-40 years?) phenomenon, halacha doesn't know how to deal with it; rabbis and other Jews are stuck in the general-society "that's icky" position and don't want to deal with it, so you can come up with Freud and Jung and kabbalah to justify your ick, but that doesn't address the real issues: which acts are forbidden (face, aft, hand, etc.), by whom (Torah, rabbis, custom), to whom (bisexuals, true homosexuals), under what assumptions about the sex drive (nature, nurture), how do we distinguish between the act and the inclination, how do we react to those who express the inclination, while knowing no specifics about acts.

We have actual homosexuals using a rationale. We have some rabbis rejecting that rationale, but not always in a coherent manner.

Look at the Yom Tov shower stuff on Hirhurim - many of us have been using exactly the justifications that are now being ratified by these rabbis (we are istenisses, hot water is OK on Yom Tov als cooking, we still have to be careful about soap and towels, etc.) Perhaps some rabbis will begin to ratify this approach to gayishkeit.

Ralphie said...

I apologize that I'm not quite following your argument here, Than. Is the "approach to gayishkeit" that could be ratified one of the following:

a. We should accept openly gay men in our shuls b/c we don't know what they're actually doing behind closed doors.

b. The Torah prohibition against man-on-man sexual activity does not apply to a specific subset of those who practice it.

c. both a & b

d. none of the above

I know I've made some tongue-in-cheek comments today, but I am sincerely commenting/asking here. Thanks.