Dear Rabbi Fried,
It’s painful for me to approach this issue, but my brother has recently “come out of the closet” and told us that he’s gay. I spoke to our Reform rabbi about it, and she says there’s nothing to be embarrassed about, it’s normal for whoever feels that that way is Jewishly all right. To me and my parents, it really doesn’t feel right and we’re not sure how to deal with it. Is it really Jewishly all right? Can anything be done about it?
The Torah, which is the source of Judaism, clearly states the Jewish view of homosexuality: “You shall not lie with a man in the way you lie with a woman, it is an abomination” (Leviticus 18:22). “And if a man will lie with a man as with a woman, they have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them” (Leviticus 20:13). As you see, the Torah labels this activity as an abomination and confers capital punishment upon the offenders. There is no prohibition against the feelings, which may be a person’s tendency; only the act is forbidden.
We, as Jews, face a tremendous challenge in today’s world where homosexual behavior, based on the studies of some scientists that show this behavior has biological roots, has been deemed acceptable and an “alternative lifestyle.” In the non-traditional Jewish world, these new societal norms have brought about a revolution in the way they deal with this phenomenon, reinterpreting the clear verses of the Torah to mean something else completely. Reform Judaism has rejected the traditional understanding of this prohibition, maintaining that it is merely prohibiting same-sex prostitution, making it a stand against the idolatrous practices of the Canaanite nations then inhabiting Israel rather than a blanket condemnation of homosexuality. For that reason they fully accept gay cantors and rabbis and most even ascribe some ritual to a same-sex “marriage,” hence what you heard from your Reform rabbi.
The Conservative movement has a spectrum of opinions among its ranks, some invoking the principle of “human dignity,” and since 2007 the AJU in Los Angeles and the JTS in New York have accepted openly gay and lesbian candidates to rabbinical school and to receive Conservative ordination.
Classical Judaism alone stands strong, holding up the timeless truths of the Torah as the benchmark of morality for all time. The view of the Torah historically did not mirror the mores of contemporary society; it was not accepted by the licentious societies of the time, especially by the Greeks, who favored homosexual love. Abraham was called “Ivri,” the sages tell us, because the Hebrew word implies that all the world stood on one side and he stood on the other. He was not afraid to stand up for the truth, even if it contradicted society and modernity.
What your brother needs is understanding and compassion, and to get him the help he needs to return to a heterosexual life so that he may one day marry and build a Jewish family. I once discussed this at length with the renowned psychiatrist Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski. He told me that this condition, with much work, can be and has been overcome. The main problem, he said, is finding a therapist today who feels there’s something wrong and a reason to cure this problem. There is an organization called JONAH dedicated to helping those who want to return to a normal, heterosexual life, with much success. Dr. Twerski cited a Midrash which states that there is no prohibition in the Torah that we have no desire at all to do; if we had no inclination to do it the Torah would not need to prohibit it. Our obligation, through Torah, is to recognize our proclivities to do certain acts and to curb our inclinations, subjugating them to the Will of G-d. We must show our utmost compassion to their situation, not rejecting these individuals as people or Jews, while at the same time not condoning their lifestyle. May you be there for your brother and help him be fully fulfilled as a person and a Jew.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Rabbi Fried,