The military has repealed its Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy toward gay soldiers. This is just one more manifestation of the increasing acceptance of homosexuals in modern life. Over the past fifty years, society’s perception of homosexuality has changed from seeing it as a mental illness, a perversion or a deviant criminal activity, to the 21st-century viewpoint that this is an alternative lifestyle choice involving capable consenting adults.
Judaism’s conflict with homosexuality begins with the Torah prohibition. Like other Torah laws dealing with forbidden kinds of intimacy, this refers to the action itself. Prohibited acts of intimacy, coming under the general heading of Giluy Arayos, are considered to be the most serious sins, along with murder and idolatry.
For years, our own Jewish world had a similar Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. Two older men, or two older women, living together for many years: well, that could simply be a financial arrangement. No one asked; no one told. It was no one’s business.
Nowadays, things are different. Men and women declare openly that they are gay Jews, lesbian Jews. What’s more, they want to be recognized by our mosdos, our shuls and our yeshivos and our communities, as openly gay and lesbian Jews. They want also to be Orthodox Jews, seeing no conflict between the gay lifestyle and the Orthodox Jewish lifestyle.
But isn’t there a fundamental underlying conflict? We don’t have communal organizations for those who announce they are going to eat pork or not observe the laws of Taharas ha Mishpachah. It’s the opposite: think of those shuls named Congregation Shomrei Shabbos or Congregation Mikveh Israel or some similar name. Don’t Jews band together to do mitzvos, not aveiros? Should we go back to a more genteel time, the old Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy: we won’t speculate about your private life as long as you don’t flaunt it? Isn’t homosexuality and other prohibited behavior outright pritzus, and not simply a lifestyle choice?
There are homosexuals married by civil law who are the biological parents, adoptive parents and stepparents of Jewish children. These are children who are halachically Jewish, born to Jewish mothers. They are being registered in yeshivos and day schools by gays and lesbians who want a Jewish education for their children. If a yeshiva turns away families with television in the home, can it turn away a Jewish child with two mommies or two daddies? Should a yeshiva take in any child who truly wants to learn more about his or her religion? It’s not the child’s fault what the parents do, or are.
But doesn’t a yeshiva or day school naturally want children from its own level of observance, from its own culture? For example, wouldn’t it be perfectly legitimate for a Sephardic yeshiva to take Sephardic children and not Ashkenaz? Or for a Bobover Chasidic yeshiva to require children to be Bobover, or at least from some other Chasidic group of an observance level similar to Bobov (Belz, Amshinov, Pupa)? So should or could our day schools and yeshivos turn away children whose families do not have the kind of lifestyle they prefer, not limited only to excluding gay and lesbian Jews, but also others?
What about gay and lesbian Jews who perform the mitzvos: gay men who wear Tzitzis and yarmulkes; lesbian women who are shomer Shabbos and Kashrus. Can we hold that there are Orthodox Jews who do certain sins, just like everyone sins? Or is it a lifestyle conflict that is incompatible? Can we be tolerant toward gays and lesbians, accepting of them as people, while condemning what they do? Are we homophobic bigots to reject their lifestyles as being against the Torah? Do we allow openly gay men and women to join our shuls, or quietly ask them to keep their private lives private?
Is Orthodox Judaism a big tent, big enough to include gay and lesbian Jews? Or must we exclude all those individuals who unapologetically and willfully violate an explicit prohibition of the Torah? What about celibate homosexuals and lesbians, those who consider themselves to be gay but do not engage in acts of intimacy? If a known pork eater is not at this moment eating pig meat, is he or she still a sinner? Is it just the activity itself or the entire lifestyle promoting and celebrating this activity? And where does Daas Torah, the rulings of our Gedolim, hold on these issues? Do we condemn sincere Jews for being too steeped in serious sins, and accept them only if they have utterly given up this lifestyle and become true Baalei-Teshuvah?
I don’t have the answers. I only have the questions.