Monday, September 29, 2003
A follow up to the previous post. Whever I talk about homosexuality being a "compulsion" that thereby excuses sexual behavior that would otherwise be objectionable, I get emails asking, "what about paedophilia? Isn't that also a compulsion? Does that make it OK?"
Yes, it is, and no, it doesn't. There are sins that are an offense against God; sins that are an offense against others; and sins that are an offense against the self. All sins fall into the first category, but not all fall into the other categories. Sexual relations with children are clearly harmful to the child as well as to the adult, and therefore fall into all three categories. I would argue that homosexual relations between consenting adults cannot very plausibly, or at least do not have to, fall into the second category. The third category - offense against the self - is still a real issue, but I would address it by pointing out that mandatory celibacy is also potentially harmful, and so one has to weigh to strategies - a gay lifestyle and a celibate lifestyle - each of which has risks of harm to self, and find the lesser harm and greater good. As for offense to God, well, I have to fall back on the same general principles that animated the rabbi's talk, about how halachah is yielding in the face of human suffering.
Another analogy often made is between being gay and being an alcoholic. An alcoholic operates under a compulsion to drink; but we don't therefore encourage him to persist in his drinking, but to give it up. The reason, though, is that continuing to drink does him palpable harm, and giving it up is a realistic possibility, whatever the transient traumas of getting from here to there. The course that avoids - or minimizes - harm to self (and to others) is giving up the bottle. I simply don't think the analogy to gay sexuality holds. I don't believe that trying to make oneself straight is the course of lesser harm.
One might say that in past ages it was plausible to lead a celibate, and private, life in perfect health, and that this must be the case or the gay "problem" would have existed in rabbinic days, and we would know the "solution." Therefore, we should not accept homosexuality but change the culture so that a healthy celibate life is more plausible. I have some sympathy for this line of argument. But I'm not sure this is true, and I'm not sure it's dispositive if it is true. I'm not sure it's true because we do hear about men who seem to have a special attraction for other men in past ages; if nothing else, insulting jokes about such individuals well antedate the modern concept of homosexuality. And the fact that the rabbis assumed that the inclination could be successfully overcome does not prove that it could be eradicated. As for why I'm not sure it's dispositive: because we cannot live in the past merely by wishing it so. Take an analogy: the rabbis never seriously considered a world in which women were, in terms of economic, social and political rights, the equals of men. That is, however, the world we live in, and it throws up interesting challenges for various aspects of Jewish tradition. To say, "oh, the problem of the agunot would never have come up in the 5th century" is not to answer the question of how to handle the problem today but to ask it in other words: we have this problem precisely because it was not a problem in the 5th century. So, perhaps in the past a man attracted to other men would have married or not, and would not have concerned himself with the question overmuch in a world where many if not most marriages were rooted in convenience. And perhaps in a world with far more serious problems, the occasional boy who vanished into a life of self-abasement and sin would not have been much noticed. One thing I can say: the most strenuous attempts to build a cloister against the outside world in the frum community have not succeeded in eradicating homosexuality. There are strictly Orthodox gays living double lives and refugees from the strictly Orthodox world who could not live doubly in that fashion.
Another objection often raised is that any recognition of the legitimacy of a gay relationship would effectively be endorsing a fraud; that perhaps it is acceptable to tolerate such relationships, but not to recognize them in any way. I don't think this is the case, even though I do think it's the case with regard to so-called gay marriage. I think the analogy between being gay and having a disability is a pretty good one (and I wonder what the disabled think about the fact that gays generally bristle at such an analogy?) and provides the following analogy. A quadraplegic cannot be strictly Sabbath observant without danger to life. But there remains the question of whether to be as stringent as possible in avoiding impermissable activity, or whether to be more lenient. For example: should the quadraplegic travel to synagogue in his wheelchair, or remain stationary for the duration of the Sabbath? Now, I'm not Sabbath-observant myself, much less a rabbinic decisor, so I'm not the best person to make an argument here. But it does seem to me that remaining stationary for the duration of the Sabbath is a terrible burden to put on someone, and that while it's conceivable that someone would choose to be stringent in this way, it is hard for me to believe that God expects it, or that a rabbi should do anything but be as lenient as possible in applying the Sabbath laws in such a situation. Now, someone who was a quadraplegic who, because he could not avoid using electricity on the Sabbath, chose to watch television would be a different case. But I would argue that to tell a quadraplegic that he ought not travel to shul - or move at all - because doing so would be using electricity is wrong. I think this is reasonably analogous to the way I approach homosexual relationships. Tolerating them without recognizing them would be politely looking away when the kid in the wheelchair rolls into synagogue, not making an issue of it but never giving him any guidance about how, as a wheelchair-bound person, he can properly observe the Sabbath. I think you can recognize an honorable way of dealing with what I would treat as a species of disability without suggesting either that the disability itself is deserving of honor, or that there's no different between being disabled and being hale.
A more telling question, which I don't get often enough, is how to deal with gay teens. And this is, indeed, an extremely difficult problem for anyone with respect for traditional ideas of modesty and sexual restraint. I refer a lot of the time to an "irreducible core" of gays who cannot be otherwise; this is deliberate, because I think there is a larger "penumbra" of individuals whose sexuality is more complicated. All of what I've been saying about accommodations for homosexuality is predicated on the notion that we can identify this core of individuals, and make a home for them, while still making it clear to everyone that there is a moral norm that they should properly conform to, to the best of their ability. But the process of identification is far from easy, and raises a whole host of problems. The "questioning" teen has been the wedge for the introduction of a thoroughly radical sexual program into secondary and even primary education, a program that actively encourages promiscuity and experimentation with different "sexualities." Conservatives need to do more than point out how terrible this program is (which they do); they need to come up with an alternative way of talking about these matters - even if we agree that they properly should not be discussed in school, at least not in ordinary classes and certainly not in primary schools.
I don't pretend I have this stuff all figured out. This is a vexing question. I've definitely moved to the right on this whole question over time in terms of my attitude, a function of (mostly) becoming a father, thinking harder about the topic, and being confronted very specifically with the idea of gay marriage. But I don't think my fundamental positions have changed all that much. I used to think, and still do think, that gay people have to have a place in society, and a place in Judaism. I still think that to have no sexual life is a sad thing, and I'm not willing to condemn someone to that. I don't have a problem with the idea of a gay rabbi. (I don't have an opinion about gay priests or ministers; not my religion, not my business.) I never thought about gay marriage until it became a realistic possibility, and having thought about it I am strongly against it. I still think that gay adoption is more problematic than adoption by a traditional family, but less problematic than adoption by singletons, and that divorce has caused far more harm to children than gay parenting ever could. I have real trouble with people who divorce their spouses for reasons other than real abuse or betrayal; here, too, the stories I know of gay marrieds who divorced fall somewhere in the middle between the more and less justified divorce stories. I did not, and do not, think gay is "just as good" as straight any more than I think deaf is just as good as hearing. But you will be hard-pressed to find someone who advocates persecution of the deaf or wants them to shut up about their problems. I thought, and still think, that conservatives have to address homosexuality on terms other than simply "go away" or they will lose the argument - and much else besides.