Homophobia, like racism, is a term whose import lies not in its technical definition but in its usefulness as a rhetorical bludgeon against perceived foes to an aggressive but fashionable agenda. The accusation itself stifles discussion, attempts to intimidate dissenters, and demeans the opposition rather than debates it. It is the refuge of those who prefer that shame replace reason, and invective substitute for civil discourse. In the last week or so, the indictment has been used to muster support for a resolution (?), a declaration (?) or something of that sort emerging from a group of Modern Orthodox rabbis that seeks overtly to increase sensitivity in the Orthodox world for the plight of the homosexual, and covertly, it seems, advance an agenda that will garner support in the religious world for the legitimacy of secular civil unions, an official welcome place in the Orthodox community for “open” homosexuals, and perhaps (among the more extreme elements among the MoDos) an admission that the Torah needs to be conformed to the modern research (and only that research) that supports the notion that homosexuality is innate and therefore could not have been prohibited by the Torah, or some other variation on that theme that would vitiate the obvious Torah prohibition homosexuality entails.
Much of the above does not appear in the Statement of Principles circulated in the ModO world, although it is the sub-text of what was characterized as the “Declaration against Homophobia” that I and others were urged to sign. The declaration encourages respect and sensitivity, an admission that homosexual acts constitute Torah violations, but also a plea for the official recognition of the homosexual as full members of the Jewish community (perhaps even as open partners, if celibacy is presumed). It is innocuous enough, unless one stops to ask the question: why is all this necessary ?
Homophobia, the accusation, carries less weight today than racism, the accusation, does, which is to say, none at all. These charges have been so overused as to be effectively meaningless, such that the indicted often wear them as badges of pride. Frankly, I do not know anyone who possesses a “fear of homosexuality,” the literal meaning of the term “homophobia.” People certainly object to the practice for religious, moral, and even societal reasons – but no one “fears” it. The accusation therefore should not be taken seriously, and undermines the sincerity of those who suggest it. They themselves are guilty of propagating a spurious phobia of non-existent homophobes, when all they are dealing with is the natural recoiling of the Jew at the attempted legitimization of a particular transgression.
I start from two very simple premises:
Everyone should treat everyone else with respect and decency. Period. We need not carve out special considerations beyond those afforded by the Torah – the widow, the orphan, the poor. Their unique status is based on external matters that do not involve a potential prohibition, but on the tragedy of the human condition itself. We should be teaching our children not to bully anyone – the poor kid and the rich kid, the smart child and the less smart, boys and girls, the cool and the uncool, the athletic and the less athletic. And we should likewise teach our adults not to disparage any human being – regardless of race, religion, ethnic background, creed and the rest of the list. But to highlight this one vice now, trendy as it is, is to pave the way for a future (not too distant) attempt to normalize these tendencies, much like a curriculum being debated in a school district in Montana these days that calls for teaching ten year olds that relations between men and women, men and men, and women and women are all “normal,” and they are free to choose as they mature. The suggested statement herein can be construed as innocuous enough, artfully phrased so that it does not trample on any fundamental principles of Judaism, but the wise person is always ro’eh et hanolad, sees trends and consequences, and the consequences for this campaign are potentially grave.
Secondly, every human being has tendencies that conflict with halacha, but we ordinarily do not broadcast them to others. How and why did homosexuality became the only biblical prohibition today that has its own lobbyists, interest group, and now legislators ? There is no other sin that earns such public acclaim, and surely that cannot be merely the result of allegedly harsh treatment against this particular group alone. The publication and mass dissemination of private sexual matters has contributed to, if not catalyzed, the tawdriness in our society that makes educating our children and other Jews with the eternal values of Torah an uphill battle. What shocks today becomes acceptable tomorrow, normal the day after that, and – scarcely a week later – a sign of moral degeneracy and mean-spirited judgmentalism for anyone who refuses to embrace it. This statement plays into that scenario and exacerbates that problem. To glorify, chastise, lament, excuse, or empathize with one set of hirhurim (illicit desires) as opposed to others elevates that particular hirhur to an undeserved “favored” status that simply echoes the zeitgeist and cheapens the Torah, but in a way that leaves us feeling both morally pure and virtuous when we in fact are neither.
In the society of decent people in which Jews should be the natural leaders, private behavior should remain private. That is the essence of tzniyut, the Jewish concept of modesty. Why must society be bombarded with knowledge of the details of a person’s private sexual practices, whether homosexual or heterosexual ? It is unbecoming. Indeed, everyone knows why people use bathrooms, and yet we still keep the door closed. For a person to trumpet his/her private sexual practices, whether or not they conform to the Torah, is just crude and unseemly, and unworthy of any Torah Jew. And yet, this statement, and the movement to normalize homosexuality in the Jewish world, is built on the foundation of coarseness that has vulgarized Western society and clearly infiltrated the precincts of Torah.
Must we know, hear about, read about, and agonize over people’s sinful or instinctual tendencies ? That is the job of a Rav to delve into in private with the afflicted individual, whatever the tendency is, not smooth the way for acceptance of that vice in Jewish (or general) society. The genius of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, similarly under siege today, was that it kept private matters private. No one need know the intimate details of another’s life, even if the person feels compelled to share it. And, as a rabbi, I need not decide whether a person who has homosexual tendencies can receive an aliya or perform some other public religious function – if I am not privy to that information. I don’t want to know and I don’t need to know – and if these matters are kept private by the relative few beset by them, then the declaration becomes superfluous.
Finally, despite all the protestations to the contrary, it strains credulity to believe that avowed homosexuals looking for acceptance in Jewish life do not act on their impulses. If they don’t, then why discuss it with the general public ? If they do, then why are we trying to diminish the gravity of their sin ? And if they do but we prefer to believe that they don’t so we can utilize the actor/action distinction as a convenient fig leaf to advance an agenda that further debases our society, then what is that saying about us ? As I see it, there is only one situation in which a person’s sexual deviance becomes an issue that requires sensitive but clear deliberation: the dating world. Men (or women) with homosexual tendencies should not date members of the opposite sex as they try to work out their issues. When they date nonetheless, the men (in particular) torment the women, who do not grasp why their relationship did not mature romantically, and, suspecting nothing, blame themselves unnecessarily. People who struggle with their sexual identity should discreetly say they are not dating; that would be a noble act of sensitivity and respect.
The bottom line is we should treat all people with respect – people like us and people not like us. Certainly, I would support under the proper circumstances the ostracism of an avowed adulterer, even though he/she could well argue that monogamy is unnatural, temptation is great, they were both consenting adults, and the pain and harm caused to themselves and their families were real and should itself warrant lenient treatment, sensitivity and “understanding.” Nevertheless, we sometimes act l’migdar milta, to set boundaries and sound a cautionary note about practices that offend the halacha. This statement tears down the boundaries that moral societies have always erected and maintained on the pretense that we are dealing only with thoughts of sin and not sin itself. I am not buying it.
I respect all those who struggle with their tendencies to avoid sin, and they should be lauded and encouraged – because “they” are “us” – all of us. The statement is therefore unnecessary and potentially harmful. The fact that it needed to be “negotiated,” with one side apparently advocating greater acceptance and legitimization of the homosexual agenda, with their own “red lines” drawn in the sand, is itself a cause for concern.
Keep private things private. We’ll be a better people for it, the world will be a better place, and the Torah will be cherished by all as the source of eternal verities and morality, rather than a weather vane that charts the shifting winds of public policy proper behavior. In so doing, we will rightly be a “light unto the nations,” if not also, first and foremost, unto ourselves.