My life used to be on a trajectory very similar to the one yours took. I was raised as a Conservative Jew and, as a teenager, was enchanted by the spiritual and intellectual depth of Orthodox Judaism. My would-be journey was abruptly cut short, though, when I realized that I was gay, and that if I lived in an Orthodox community I would be forced to live as half a person — alone without the love or intimacy of long-term commitment that is as essential to the soul as food and water are to the body. I chose love and intimacy in the secular world over spiritual death in the Orthodox world.
I am obviously not alone. Countless gay Jews have abandoned Orthodox Judaism because of its attitude towards homosexuality. And who can blame them? Would you remain Orthodox if the Torah prescribed you loneliness and celibacy? Would you remain in your community if it blessed and celebrated commitments between gay Jews while forbidding your love for your husband? When will the Orthodox world offer a sincerely empathetic response to the suffering of its gay members (not one that denies their existence or condemns them to misery)?
For me and every other gay person I know, these questions are inextricable from our (frequently negative) opinions of Orthodox Judaism.
Thank you for sharing your very personal story. You’ve asked many questions, but I think that the first issue that needs to be dealt with is how one reconciles the Torah’s view of homosexuality with being an open-minded person living in the twenty-first century. It’s something that I’ve wanted to address on this site for a while, so I appreciate that you’ve given me the opportunity to do so.
Since I’m going to be speaking about a subject which I’ve never personally experienced, I want to preface my response with the words of our sages, who remind us, “Do not judge your fellow until you are in his place.” (Pirkei Avos)
That being said, the best response I have to God creating a person with a sexual and emotional desires that He forbids her to fulfill (in any way) is to remember that we live in a world where bad things happen to good people. Now why bad things happen to good people is a discussion in and of itself, and people spend entire lifetimes grappling with this difficult issue.
Not only that, being created with a sexual/emotional desire that one can never fulfill creates two challenges – first, the living without and longing for that which you can never have, and second, the need to exhibit a tremendous amount of self-control.
Unfortunately, when it comes to people living without and longing for that which they can never have, this pain is not reserved only for people experiencing same-sex attraction who want to live in accordance with Jewish law. There are countless couples out there who experience infertility and spend years undergoing treatments, only to learn that giving birth to a child will never be possible. Every baby they see, every child running to his mother’s arms, is a terrible reminder of the reality that can never be theirs. (I don’t want to turn this into a contest of whose pain is greater – the infertile woman who longs for a child, or the halacha-abiding homosexual who will never experience the love or intimacy of long-term commitment – I just want to make the point that unfortunately there are many types of situations that cause people to live with deep pain due to something essential that they’re missing.)
In terms of the challenge of controlling oneself sexually, or remaining celibate, as you put it, the Torah recognizes how difficult a feat this is. As we learn from the story of Joseph (the one with the coat of many colors), when his boss’s wife, eishes Potiphar, tries to seduce him one day – an act, that had he given in to could have landed him into a heap of trouble – Joseph is only able to overcome the temptation when he sees a vision of his father’s face. Remembering his father gives him the burst of strength he needs in order to resist, and from that day on, after overcoming a sexual temptation just one time, he is called Yosef haTzadik (Joseph, the righteous one) ever more.
And even so, the Torah expects many people (including, but not only homosexuals), to exhibit incredible amounts of self-control over their sexual desires. There are countless singles in the Orthodox world who date for years and years – some for decades and decades – all while never so much as touching a member of the opposite sex due to the laws of shomer negiah. Of course, unlike with homosexuals, these singles do have the possibility of eventually finding someone and getting married (which means that they can live with hope), but as the years go on and the prospects get slimmer and slimmer, many of them lose hope and give up.
Now, unlike with the case of the infertile couples who are powerless over their situation, some of these Orthodox singles, if they went out into the secular world, would be able to be find love or at least intimacy. Do some of them slip up from time to time or eventually throw in the towel and leave the fold completely? I’m sure some do. Can we blame them (or gay Jews), as you asked, for wanting to experience love and intimacy if they do so at the price of keeping halacha? Like I said at the beginning, we’re not supposed to judge another until we’ve been in his place. We can’t condone doing things against the Torah, but that doesn’t mean that it’s our place to judge people in that situation either. Perhaps a person with same sex attraction overcoming a sexual test acquires more spiritual merit than a different person without this struggle could acquire in lifetime.
Would I, you asked, remain Orthodox if the Torah prescribed me loneliness and celibacy? Would I remain in this community if it blessed and celebrated commitments between gay Jews while forbidding my love for my husband? These are all fair questions, but it’s a bit hard for me to imagine severing a relationship with a man that I married almost ten years ago and had three kids with, so I’ll answer a different, but similar question.
What if I had realized that I was gay, like you did, as a teenager, after I discovered the beauty and wisdom of Torah Judaism? What would I have done then? Well, it’s obviously hard for me to know for certain since I’ve never been tested that way, but what I think I would have done, or at least hope I would have done, would be to stick with Torah Judaism nonetheless.
When I came to observant Judaism, I had a very nice life already. I had a close family, good friends, and lived a very comfortable upper-middle class life. I had basically everything one is supposed to have in order to be happy – and I was happy. I just knew that nothing I had was going to last. I understood, even as a child, that everything in life comes and goes until eventually life itself goes, and I wanted something more permanent to hold onto. Some bigger purpose for everything existing in the first place. I found that within a Torah observant lifestyle.
Not only did I find meaning in this way of life, as I started learning more about the illogical history of the Jewish people, the odds we’ve overcome and saw how Torah wisdom was incomparable to anything else I had ever experienced, I felt intellectually compelled to abide by Jewish law.
So if I would have chosen love and intimacy in the secular world over an Orthodox life (in this fake scenario we’re discussing), I would have had my emotional and physical needs met, but my spirituality (and intellectual honesty) would have suffered. Having lived through years of panic attacks and insomnia (when my spirituality was suffering, in the pre-Torah days) I can tell you that it’s not something that I would have wanted to return to.
So how would I have coped day-to-day? For one thing, I probably would have tried sexual re-orientation therapy. I’m aware that that is an EXTREMELY unpopular thing to say nowadays – even mentioning those words will set many people off. I’m not advocating this approach for others – a choice like this must ONLY come from the individual. I’m simply explaining what I might have tried, because here’s the thing: from the outside looking in – having never personally experienced sexual re-orientation therapy – I can only rely on what others who have experienced it have said. And from what I’ve seen, there are extremely diverging opinions. I’ve watched interviews and read testimonials of people who claimed that it was effective and that they were much happier because of it. I’ve heard people explain that it didn’t work for them, but didn’t claim that it was harmful – just ineffective. And unfortunately, I’ve read some horrific articles which talked about scary, crazy, abusive stuff that has gone on in some cases. I’d obviously only work with the programs that had people reporting good results. I likely would have tried it in hopes of being one of the ones who came out with a good result.
If it didn’t work for me, I would probably have tried my best to live single and celibate. I’m certain that such a life would have been a challenging one in many ways, probably torturous at times. I’m sure I would have had my moments where I felt resentful towards God and struggled in my relationship with Him, but struggling with God is in our national genes. From the moment Jacob wrestled with the angel in the book of Genesis and had his name changed to Yisrael, meaning “he who struggles with God,” the complexity of our relationship with the Almighty was set. I guess the bottom line is, whether I would have had my good days with God or my bad days, I believe that I would have wanted a life that included God no matter what.
In terms of “when the Orthodox world will offer a sincerely empathetic response to the suffering of its gay members” I agree that there needs to be more empathy and more awareness for the struggles of homosexuals, but honestly, there needs to be more empathy for the struggle of all people (older singles, infertile couples, etc.) who have a situation that’s outside of the Orthodox norm.
Although improvements are still needed, I believe that there is more awareness and empathy now than ever before, and I hope with letters such as yours as well as other gay Jews telling their stories, that sensitivity and understanding will continue to increase and judgementalism will decrease.
However, that does not mean that Jewish law can change. Upholding Torah law and its values is the most basic tenet that Orthodox Jews live by. What I realized years ago, after I made the transition from Conservative Judaism to Orthodoxy, was that within the non-Orthodox movements, when it comes to the commandments that are harder for people to follow, the attitude seems to be that man is good enough the way he is and it’s the Torah that needs changing. With Orthodoxy, it’s the exact opposite. We say the Torah is good enough as is, (perfect, in fact) and it’s man that must change.
Now when you mention that the Orthodox community needs to come to a point where they don’t “deny the existence of gays,” I assume you mean that you hope there’ll be a day when gay couples can be openly gay and welcomed in Orthodox shuls.
This is a real challenge in Orthodoxy, not because anyone wants to “condemn gays to misery” but rather because being part of the Orthodox community means striving towards keeping the Torah in its entirety. Torah observance doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing deal and no one, in reality, is keeping every single law; but the attitude of a Torah committed Jew is to be working on it all. That means that what ever part of a person’s life is at odds with halacha (and we all have something) it should be kept as a private struggle (certainly shared with close friends) but not something that is publicized.
So if someone is still driving on the Sabbath and wants to be a part of an Orthodox synagogue, he’s not going to park in the synagogue parking lot. He’ll park nearby and walk the last little bit. That’s an acknowledgement that driving on Shabbos is not considered ideal. Likewise, a person struggling with the laws of kosher would never bring a cheeseburger to services even if she’s still eating them sometimes in her home because doing so just wouldn’t be appropriate in a place where striving for complete Torah observance is expected.
Now I understand that one’s sexuality is a lot more of a central issue to a person than a love of cheeseburgers or what day of the week he uses a car, and I don’t want to minimize what a struggle this is since I get that being told to keep a major part of your life private sounds a lot like a rejection of who you are.
I guess the question that every gay Jew has to ask herself is: is she a homosexual who happens to be Jewish or is she a Jew who happens to have same sex attraction? Such a decision is a very personal one and can only be decided by each individual, but from the outside looking in, it seems to me that if one defined herself as a Jew first who happened to have been born with same sex attraction than those feelings would be less tied into her identity.
At the end of the day this is a very difficult issue with no easy answers and this is probably one of the greatest struggles of the Orthodox world today – balancing compassion with unchanging laws. Because you directed questions at me, I conjectured about what I think I would have done in your situation, but lets not kid ourselves, it was nothing more than conjecture, I have no idea how I’d really respond in such a situation any more than I could tell you if I could survive the Holocaust and retain my faith and observance.
I tried to answer your letter with compassion as well as honesty, and though I stand firm about not going against what the Torah says, please know that I and many other open-minded Orthodox Jews do not sit in judgement for the decisions you’ve made. And I hope that, if you ever feel like increasing your Jewish observance again, you will be able to find a balance that you can live with and feel content with.
Wishing you only good things,