This post is based on the second part of a session held with Rav Lichtenstein on Friday, 17 Marcheshvan, 5773, November 2, 2012. In response to some of the feedback following the last session, I decided to integrate [bracketed] translations into the text rather than marking them as notes. Once again, I tried to maintain the original formulations whenever possible [any bracketed comments are my insertions]. While I consulted and confirmed with Rav Lichtenstein on a few of the details, he did not review the text.
Question: There has some discussion recently concerning what our attitude as Orthodox Jews should be toward homosexuals in our community. Some of the debate revolves around the meaning and significance of the Torah’s designation: to’eivah [abomination]. Could Rav Lichtenstein relate to these issues, addressing both the individual and communal levels?
This, as you know, is a hot issue, and one which has surfaced in our world as, simultaneously, it has surfaced within the general world. There was a time when it was taken for granted that if you were homosexual you couldn’t be in the army, you couldn’t run a business, you obviously couldn’t set up a home, and you obviously couldn’t apply for getting whatever money is distributed by the government for a mate. All of that was taken for granted. In the background was a judgment, which is grounded in the Western adherence to Biblical tradition, that there’s something wrong with this morally and spiritually. While the opinion divided between two poles [the Euthyphro argument] about whether things are good because the Ribbono shel Olam [God] wants them, or He wants them because they’re good, and that works the other way as well with regard to things that are not good.
Some people have said that homosexuality is something which is a distortion of nature, it’s not the way the Ribbono shel Olam built the world, it’s no good – and because it’s no good, there’s a pasuk [verse] in Acharei Mot which tells you to stay away from it. Others say no, it’s a neutral phenomenon, but neutral things, once the Torah “deneutralizes” them, so to speak, and set it up as an issur [prohibition], even if it’s a chok [non-rational law] and not something beyond that – we have to subscribe to it if we are believing Jews, or, להבדיל, believing Christians.
There is some discussion in the time of rishonim, and later – about the whole world of arayot [sexual prohibitions] in general – is it a chok or a mishpat [rational law]. It’s an old question. Aquinas deals with this issue in Summa Theologica, and, להבדיל, the Ramban deals with this issue: is it chok or is it mishpat. That would probably make some difference in terms of how you relate to it. If you relate to it as mishpat, it has a rational basis: somebody who engages in it, you are doubly severe in judging him – first of all, he’s doing something which is inherently wrong – and which, without the Torah – in the same manner as the gemara in Eiruvin says that if arayot were not written in the Torah, we would have learned tzeni’ut from the cat – we would have learned heterosexuality from the dog or the cat, or some other animal – one who engages in homosexuality is: 1) violating the natural order and 2) violating the parsha in Sefer Vayikra. If you think it’s a chok – the first element falls out, but it’s [still] out of line, it’s part of the issur.
The question you raise is not just a question with regard to a particular ban, but the label of to’eivah, does that add a more serious dimension. To make that judgment you need to do two related things: 1) check a computer or a concordance for wherever the word to’eivah appears – and see, to what does it apply. So you discover that to’eivah,in the pasuk in Yechezkel, refers to people who don’t feed עניים [poor] properly (Ezekiel 16:48-50), or, you open up a chumash in Ki Tetzei – if you are dealing with weights and measures, and you cheat a little bit on the weights and the measures, that’s to’eivah also (Deuteronomy 25:13-16). Having done that, find for me a community which responds and relates to homosexuality as if you are doing something terrible – just like it responds to those who are cheating a little bit on weights and measures. But that’s not the case, and that is because of the revulsion which, apart from its being called to’eivah – the revulsion which is felt by the Western world toward homosexuality probably would have existed in large measure nonetheless.
If you ask me: should the term to’eivah be meaningful to us? Of course it should. We are מאמינים בני מאמינים [believers]. We think that if the Torah refers to something as to’eivah, the Ribbono shel Olam regards it as to’eivah. But to be fairer and more honest with ourselves and with our communities, let us understand that if you deal only with the use of the term to’eivah, you can only push that particular envelope as far as you push the cheating on the weights and the measures – so all the revulsion, the moral energy, that you bring against that, you should bring against this, too.
That’s not what happens today. I have an argument with some people about this. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not in favor of homosexuality, חס ושלום. But we do need to agree to abide by a greater measure of honesty in dealing with that community than I think at present applies. Let me give you one example. Some years back – with regard to an annual event in NY – there is the Israel Day Parade – it’s a big event – they bring people from all over, all the high schools in the NY area, boys and girls, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, secularists – they all come to the big parade. It’s been, for many people, a very positive force, a binding force, bringing Jews together – for some it’s a bit divisive – but they always manage to get over their divisions and march together on a given Sunday during sefirah.
A few years back, as part of the ferment which you have within the Jewish community in general and the homosexual community in particular, the gays said they want to get in on the action too – so everyone else walks around with big signs: we are A, B, C, D of America – so we are the Jewish gays and lesbians of America. The response was a threat – they didn’t use the word threat, they called it an advisement, or something to that effect – by the religious high schools – if the gays are going to be part of the parade, we’re out. That was more than the Jewish community could swallow – an event which always served to bind, to unify, for it to be divisive – there was some give and take and some friends of mine were involved in this, I know this from the inside, and finally, they worked out an arrangement where the homosexuals did not march, the threat worked – no one could bear the thought that all the high schools were going to be out.
You ask yourself, wait a minute: we don’t like homosexuality, but we don’t like chillul Shabbat [Shabbat violation] either – all the mechallelei Shabbat [Shabbat violators] of America could have marched in that parade and no one would say boo, because we are very liberal Jews, and we like to not be judgmental, and be friendly to people to the right and the left of us. So, mechallelei Shabbat – we wish they would be shomrei Shabbat [Shabbat observers], but if that’s what they are, that’s what they are,we accept them as they are and we don’t pass judgment.
If I open a gemara in Sanhedrin, or if I open a chumash, for that matter – leaving aside the term to’eivah – what is a more serious aveirah, chillul Shabbat [Shabbat violation] or homosexuality. Or, for that matter, there are people who worship avodah zarah [idolatry] who march in the parade, too. Is it proper, is it fair, and I say this without relenting in our position to homosexuality – to decide that all the sins which the whole entire Jewish community has – all of that we can swallow and march with them, with pride and with their flags and everything that they want, but this is the שעיר לעזאזל[scapegoat] – dispatched to ארץ גזירה, that’s what happens to the שעיר לעזאזל (Leviticus 16:22). I discussed this point with people for whom I have the highest regard and I asked them this question.
I’m not so nimble-minded not to know the answer. Much of the answer is: the mechallelei Shabbat of America don’t want to march in the parade under the banner of mechallelei Shabbat of America – they are going to march as the Kiwanis club or the Rotary club, the junior high school of Great Neck, or whatever you have, and that will pass muster – they will not flaunt. The homosexual community today has created such a ferment because it is very aggressive. The response to that has been – on our part – many people have also been aggressive. That’s something which I think should be avoided.
In terms of how you respond to it: the term response has at least a dual meaning, and maybe more than two meanings. One is, what your response is emotionally, psychologically, spiritually – how would you feel, not necessarily that you would do anything or could do anything. If you were walking down the street and saw someone breaking into a bank – so that, מהיכי תיתי. If you were walking down the street and saw someone raping a girl – the disgust, the revulsion – the feeling of uch – would be overwhelming. That’s a response of one kind even if you could do nothing, all you could do is go home and discuss it with your wife, and tell her: what a terrible neighborhood we live in, it’s time to move. But then, there is a response which is at the active plane: you can respond by going to the police station and getting the license number of the car the attacker is driving around in, and hope that the police get there before you.
When we talk about response, are we talking about: feeling warmly and with sympathy to that community, or are we talking about steps actually to be taken? The question of steps to be taken is also a more recent phenomenon. Fundamentally, the issur of homosexuality is a personal aveirah; I don’t know – maybe I’m wrong – of places in Tanakh or in Chazal which single out, as a communal sin, homosexuality. I know where failure to give enough tzedakah [charity] is singled out – even with regard to gentiles – I discussed it in the shiurim on tzedakah [in the Friday morning מעגל החיים series] – that’s part of Yechezkel’s diatribe against them. There is chillul Shabbat – all kinds of things which are singled out in nevi’im – not just that there are x number of individuals sleeping with each other in Yerushalayim – they have their own bedroom. And historically, I think that’s how it’s been treated, as far as I know.
Today it’s become a public issue and it’s part of a public debate. What you do in relating to a homosexual – beyond either feeling revulsion or feeling sympathy – do you let him into shul, do you give him an aliyah, do you let him daven for the amud, if he adopts a child, do you let the child attend your yeshivah. You could give many other examples: job discrimination: is it fair, is it honest, if a person is a homosexual – I’m not talking about the army, where you may be afraid that you’ll be seduced, or whatever you’re afraid of – he wants to be a teller in a bank. These are all issues which can be part of the public arena, the public scene. There, different people have different emotional responses and different practical responses.
If you ask me for my own response: obviously, I don’t approve in any way, but emotionally, the fire that burns in many hearts today, and the fears which go beyond the revulsion, are beyond what I think is proper, and particularly, as the phenomenon becomes more prevalent, which is unfortunate in itself, but at the personal plane it has become a more common aveirah, it is less of an aveirah on the part of the particular individual.
My own feeling is: it’s a very unfortunate development and one that will hopefully pass, though that’s hard to say. But, for people involved: I have a combination of – I wouldn’t say revulsion, that may be too strong a term – I certainly have criticism, disapproval, but tempered with an element of sympathy. These are people who are very unfortunate. I said to one of them who came to talk to me: you are thrice punished. First of all, you are punished in that you can’t have a normal life: one of the great joys of my life is my children, my family, my wife, and children you can’t have. Secondly, you are punished in that you have no one to whom to turn – you come out, risking your own situation, taking a position. Thirdly, the disapproval generates further disapproval. Particularly, if one acknowledges that many of the people who are caught in this situation feel that they are אנוסים [coerced], not שוגג [accidental], not מזיד [intentional].
From what I gather psychologists are divided on this issue, as to whether it is something which is controllable or not. But the material which they send me – I’m not singled out for anything – reflects a readiness on the part of many, and they would be very happy if you could cure them. There are some, who are very militant, who wouldn’t want you to use the term cure – they are not sick any more than the heterosexual people are sick – that’s how they regard it – that, I think, is pushing it a bit too far. You might assume they are not to be held fully responsible if it’s a genetic development, but, certainly it is not something which we want to see become more rampant.