Sensitivity

     Sensitivity is unarguably a fundamental Jewish trait. It is not merely an aspiration but a definition: “Whoever is compassionate towards others, it is obvious that he is a descendant of Avraham; whoever is not compassionate towards others, it is obvious that he is not a descendant of Avraham” (Talmud Masechet Betza 32b). Thus, the recent Statement of Principles on relating to homosexuals is clearly intended in that vein. However, the Statement itself, and some reaction to my own published thoughts on the subject, reminded me that while sensitivity is a cardinal Jewish value, it is one of many values that mold the Jewish personality.

    Much has been made – and rightfully so – about the personal abuse heaped on homosexual oriented youth and adults. It should be rightfully condemned and eradicated as much as is humanly possible. “As much as is humanly possible” is a necessary qualifier, because, although we may strive for perfection, we rarely attain it, and the existence of human imperfections should not surprise or be unduly lamented. “Bullying” is, of course, wrong, as is mockery, verbal abuse, put downs, etc., and the victims are right to complain and be aggrieved. But perspective is helpful; homosexuals are not the only victims of such unfair treatment. As I recall from my own school days – before the invasion of the therapists, psychologists, and do-gooders, and when insults that went too far were settled – literally – in the school yard that itself bred a certain toughness and realism about life and the world – numerous groups (likely everyone, at one time or another) were tormented.

     Here’s a brief list from my own experience of groups who were harassed: children of low intelligence or high intelligence, children who were not athletic, children who were too athletic (derided as “jocks”), boys who acted like sissies and girls who acted like tomboys, children who were obese or rail thin, people who suffered from a physical disability or were developmentally disabled, people who had a prominent physical characteristic (too short, too tall, big nose, no chin, one eyebrow, bearded at age nine, slack jaw), girls who were unattractive or too attractive (and therefore assumed to be dim-witted), immigrants, poor children, the poorly dressed and the too-spiffily dressed (the dandy), the fatherless and the motherless, the kid who brought his lunch from home in a metal box, the teacher’s pet, fans of non-local sports teams, and many others. [Yes, I attended one, tough school. If that weren’t enough, non-Jews would assault us on the way home.]

      Many people in every strata of society still suffer from this sorry expression of a blatant lack of midot tovot (virtuous traits) on the part of insensitive people. Thus, the Torah mandates sensitive treatment for the poor, the widow and the orphan, to which we can properly add the divorcee, the single, the childless, the infertile, the unemployed, etc.  Add to this list, today, the officially protected groups in our world, based on innate characteristics like race or skin color, ethnic background, religion and creed, and women, and now a class defined by private behavior that also seeks these protections, those attracted to same-sex relationships. We can literally walk on eggshells among our fellow humans, and it is undoubtedly prudent not to say anything that might offend a card-carrying member of one of the protected classes; that is to say, it is best to say nothing at all, ever.

      There are many people who fear even addressing these issues – especially the place of the homosexual in Jewish society – for fear of sounding, or being branded, insensitive. Correspondents who castigated me assume that their particular victimization exceeds that of any other victim, a point naturally made by every victimized group in history, including Jews. But there are several brutal facts that need to be considered: first, as noted last week, homosexuals are the only group mentioned above whose defining activity involves a sin, a transgression of the Torah. That cannot be papered over, and the Statement’s dismissal of hirhur (illicit desires, even if not acted upon) as part of this discussion is deceptive, and telling.

       Second, and consequently, it is naïve to think that an open homosexual – like an open adulterer, open Shabbat desecrator, open cheeseburger consumer, or open thief – can ever be accorded a place of honor or even acceptance (“full members”) in the official Jewish community, including shuls and yeshivot. Sensitivity becomes tolerance, then acceptance, then legitimacy – and that obviously requires a revision of the Torah, which cannot happen. The idea that a yeshiva can or should accept the children of homosexuals is as absurd as the notion that it should embrace a family of Jewish polyandrists (Torah prohibition) or Jewish polygamists (Rabbinic prohibition), and would subject that child to unimaginable and undeserved cruelty, our best efforts at sensitivity training notwithstanding.

      That raises the third, and clearly the saddest aspect, of this individual tragedy: children. The Statement presupposes that homosexuals will want children, and want their children raised in the Torah community, notwithstanding their unacceptable lifestyle. But is it fair to bring children into the world – or adopt children – under those circumstances, i.e., fair to the children ? For sure, the childless in our world suffer enormously, as our tradition celebrates children and much of Jewish life is built around the continuity of family. For that reason alone, the Statement’s clear disdain for therapies that might ameliorate this condition is itself problematic. How can there be a “religious right” not to avail oneself of a therapy that might re-channel the person’s desires from the illicit to the licit, and potentially enable him/her to lead a normal and traditional lifestyle ?

     In its casual but sincere call for the acceptance of such children – under the guise of sensitivity to children, which should be beyond question – the Statement fails to consider that not every Jew will merit posterity, either because of nature or choice. “For so says Hashem to the barren ones who observe My Sabbaths and choose what I desire (italics added) and grasp My covenant tightly. In My house and My walls I shall give them a place and a renown (Yad vashem), better than sons and daughters; eternal renown I shall give them, never to be cut down” (Yeshayahu 56:4-5). There are ways to serve G-d and contribute to Jewish life for those who cannot – or will not – have children.

     It is sad, and their struggles – like all of us who struggle with transgressions that sever our connection to G-d, family, loved ones and community – are heartrending, and part of the human condition.  But the Torah cannot be updated to conform to the zeitgeist on grounds of sensitivity, nor can we gerrymander the boundaries of Mitzvot in order to carve out an exemption for one class of sinner or another. We should be kind and decent to all people, including those in the schoolyard of my youth, and sensitive as well to the eternal nature of Torah that has been entrusted to us as the divine light that illuminates our every thought and move and by whose standard (and only that standard) we judge what is right and wrong. Those who choose to follow their desires, and not what G-d desires for them, deserve no special consideration – and certainly not (as mentioned before) when modesty dictates that what is private should remain private.

     “Everyone knows why the bride enters the wedding canopy but whoever sullies his mouth and speaks of it will have even a good decree of 70 years overturned” (Talmud Masechet Shabbat 33a). There was a time when Jews reflected grace and decorum, where to be accused of being prust (unseemly, unbecoming) was a true Jewish insult. Under the guise of sensitivity, we have become as uncouth as others, and worse, tamper with the Torah as if it were our plaything, not our divine heritage. The Statement, like the other excitement of the past ten days, is just another nail in the coffin of Modern Orthodoxy, sacrificed on the altar of trendiness and political correctness. We must be sensitive – but we must also be different and holy, a nation created not to deify the transient values of Western man but the eternal values of G-d. When that happens, we will have something to teach the world, and perhaps even merit full and complete redemption.

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11 responses to “Sensitivity

  1. The idea that a yeshiva can or should accept the children of homosexuals is as absurd as the notion that it should embrace a family of Jewish polyandrists (Torah prohibition) or Jewish polygamists (Rabbinic prohibition), and would subject that child to unimaginable and undeserved cruelty, our best efforts at sensitivity training notwithstanding.

    This seems absurd to me. If a 13-year-old kid comes to a high school interview and says, “to be frank, my family is not shomer shabbos, and I became shomer shabbos on my own,” you think the high school should not take him, and should let him go to public school instead?

    • Read more carefully: I did not say “a family of non-shomrei Shabbat,” but a “family of polyandrists…polygamists.” It is not quite the same.

  2. Once upon a time, those who committed suicide were buried outside the walls of the cemetery. Judaism–a life-affirming religion–can never embrace a person choosing death over life. Nowadays, our understanding of suicide has shifted with our deepening understanding of how psychic pain can bring one to do the unthinkable. Those people are now buried within the cemetery because we accept the fact that this act often overrides a person’s conscious will.
    I see the issue of homosexuality as parallel, especially in light of the fact that many (if not most) young men who commit suicide, do so because of their homosexuality. For them, there is no way of reconciling their devotion to Torah and mitzvot with what science has increasingly determined to be an intractable and unchangeable orientation. The statement is a first step of rabbis and community leaders who have faced these complex issues, to see to it that they continue to operate within the embrace of the community. For many, this is a form of piku’ach nefesh and I applaud them for a valiant attempt at fashioning a Torah response to this phenomenon and these individuals.

  3. “but it seems reasonable that sexual orientation goes to a deeper part of one’s identity than one’s looks, accent, or socio-economic status.”

    I certainly did not state that children of cheeseburger eaters should be banned from yeshiva or shul. I would suggest, though, that, as is common practice, yeshivot will allow in a certain percentage of non-shomrei mitzvot, otherwise the cognitive dissonance in the class will overwhelm the best pedagogy. If you ask, what is “modern” about the Statement, your above declaration is a good example, as it embraces the modern value system uncritically. Ultimately, sexual orientation is a matter of behavior, which can always be modified if the will is there. Most of the other examples are matters that cannot be modified. You state well that the premises of proponents and opponents ar enot the same, making discussion less than fruitful, but Torah Jews do not maintain that science has the last word (since by definition its conclusions change regularly), and certainly not on moral issues. To state it bluntly: the Torah deems homosexual conduct a sin and a crime. The Torah punishes criminals, not people who are driven by compulsion (who, indeed, are exempt from punishment). If you are positing that science has determined that homosexual tendencies are innate in each such person, then you are elevating the “knowledge” of science over those of G-d. That would be post-modern Orthodox, even not post-Orthodox itself.
    Can there be certain individuals born with these compulsions ? Certainly – like the kleptomaniac who steals and the homocidal maniac who kills. Oness, rachmana patrei. They are exceptions, and still bound by the Torah’s law. (Patur doesn’t make it mutar.) They, sadly, live a constricted life, much like a person born with a physical or psychological handicap who cannot fully partake of life. But can we suggest that every homosexual is compulsively incapable of refraining from acting on his tendencies ? If so, then you have succeeded in deleting one of the 248 prohibitions in the Torah. That, again, is either post-modern Orthodox or just post-Orthodox, and to that, the fair question would be, which sin is next on the deletion agenda ? I can think of a few.

  4. Shades of Gray

    “… the Statement’s dismissal of hirhur (illicit desires, even if not acted upon) as part of this discussion is deceptive, and telling.”

    I appreciate R. Pruzansky addressing this, and although I don’t necessarily agree with the Statement of Principles, to be fair, it does address “hirhurie averiah” saying that it needs to be defined, and focuses on [degrees of] feelings.

    I would note two issues:

    1) Like anger, the initial feeling may be hard to control, although, like with anger, with work that may changed(I recall that R AJ Twerski discusses levels of anger, and distinquishes between a stage which is beyond one’s intial control).

    2) Even for some healthy(non gay or SSA) yeshivah students, it’s probably normal to have such faint and subtle feelings, and thinking that one is sinning(more than being angry) or to feel excessively guilty for merely having them, could make the issue worse. This certainly applies to those with actual homosexual inclinations.

    I don’t think the Statement is saying anything different than the following from Tradition(Wolwelsky and Weinstein, Tradition, Winter 1995, “Initial Religious Counseling for a Male Orthodox Adolescent Homosexual “):

    “Thus we need not even argue against the psychological position that holds that many healthy people have homosexual thoughts at one time or another. The Torah’s position is that the normal quality of any impulse is irrelevant to its ethical or halakhic character. ”

    As the authors continue:

    “This position is reassuring for the religious adolescent plagued by homosexual thoughts. If he is crazy, there may be no hope. If he is basically normal – struggling in this area as all people do in one area or another – then there may well be a chance for him to lead a rich, halakhically valid life.”

  5. Great stuf, as always. I davened in your shul over the weekend (not on shabbos morning) but did not get a chance to meet you. Judging from just informal conversation, you have overwhelming support. The only complaining I heard was that the Monday morning late davening in the side room with the chairs chained together was riddiculosuly long. (It was.) Would that our political leaders expressed themsleves as clearly, forcefully, and most important, unapologeticaly, as you do.

  6. enough already

    Bravo Rabbi!

    Yeyasher kochacho!

  7. Rabbi Pruzansky,

    First, I agree with this post heartily.

    Second, I believe there is a small stream in Jewish thought that celebrates or idealizes celibacy. (Think Ben Azzai, Moshe Rabbeinu, the Rambam’s son etc.). I think we should publicize this stream of Jewish thought to those who may in theory need it.

    The overwhelming majority of Catholic priests practice celibacy. There’s no reason why certain Jews who find it impossible to marry a woman can’t be celibate as well and be proud even of the levels of kedusha they can thus reach.

  8. Pingback: Ruth Institute Blog » Rabbi Pruzansky on the “Statement of Principles”

  9. I appreciate your comments. For a second I was wondering what “ar enot” (halfway through your last comment) meant; it does look like Hebrew.
    Regarding the individual who is born with a compulsion; is not that person also, in their desire to follow God’s way, capable of a unique greatness?

    • Everyone is born with some compulsions, and everyone is capable of channeling them properly if those tendencies are sinful. You are correct – they are all capable of spiritual greatness. Indeed, some of our most famous and revered figures made their reputations by reining in their passions – Yaakov’s son Yosef leaps to mind.