Jewish Journal


January 16, 2003

Gay Halacha

We oppose witch hunts on bedroom matters for gays and straights.


Later this year, the Conservative movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards will most likely reconsider the subject of homosexuality. As in the past, the extremes in these discussions are not listening to each other, and there's been no mention of an obvious problem with the proposals to make halacha more gay-inclusive. (Perhaps the problem just seems obvious to me because I move comfortably in both worlds, as a shomer mitzvot Jew who once identified as gay but now accepts the authority of halacha regarding human sexuality and has been "openly celibate" for more than a year.)

What's striking about the present debate is the complete mismatch between the problem and the proposed solutions. Those who advocate changing the halacha on homosexuality reasonably insist that Jewish law consider the sincere testimony of the people it affects. But then, they advocate the most direct abrogation of one of God's mitzvot in the movement's history by legislating their own folk prejudices about "what gay guys do" without ever considering what we actually do. Anyone who thinks queer Jews are crying out in agony that the Torah's specific prohibition stymies our self-actualization has not been listening to us.

The Levitical proscription of mishkav zachar (homosexual relations) has always been understood to refer to a specific kind of male-male sexual intercourse. And it is a myth that mishkav zachar is central to the sexuality, dignity and happiness of nearly all contemporary gay men. None of us use "gay" or "bisexual" to refer to any particular sex act. Those terms refer to complex appreciations and multifaceted desires for male faces, bodies and personalities, and for sharing romantic interactions, loving gestures and sexual behaviors with other guys. Some gay men's sexual, emotional and romantic lives revolve around mishkav zachar, but not most. And those gays who do enjoy that act typically also participate in acts that, while similar, do not violate the Torah's ban.

It is disrespectful and ignorant to equate the identities of gay, lesbian and bisexual people with particular sexual mechanics. Mishkav zachar is a part of only 19 percent to 44 percent of gay sexual encounters, depending on the demographic group in question, according to sexdoc.com expert Dr. William Fitzgerald, a gay-affirming psychotherapist.

And Gayhealth.com asserts emphatically that not all gay men engage in mishkav zakhar, which it says "is steeped in all kinds of psychological baggage and it is not right for everyone. Some of us just don't enjoy it and/or have no desire to do it."

In fact, for most gays, strict monogamy is a much harder demand than abstaining from mishkav zachar, but the advocates for change don't propose sanctioning gay promiscuity. If the law can legitimately dictate the sexual schedules of straight couples and require that gay and bisexual men overcome our oness (compulsion) for multiple sex partners, why the rush to permit the very male-male sex act halacha tolerates least? Despite their warm intentions, those advocating change ironically reinforce the stereotype that gay men are sex fiends whose libidos cannot tolerate even modest strictures. Rubbish. The adjustments gay and bisexual men have made in the age of AIDS prove that we can indeed avoid certain practices.

The classic example of the oness concept (which undergirds most theories proposing halachic laxity on homosexuality) is someone who says she's sick and needs to eat on Yom Kippur. She may eat, for "the heart knows its own bitterness" (Talmud Yoma 83a). But, if during Ne'ilah services someone says he needs to sit down, we don't hand him a sandwich. Similarly, rabbis who would listen carefully to what gays and lesbians are actually saying might hear heart-wrenching pleas for things like respectful dignity, equal treatment of our families, rabbinic ordination and same-sex weddings. But urgent entreaties to revoke the Torah's ban on mishkav zachar? Hardly.

Once we recognize that the Torah's specific prohibition is almost never an insurmountable burden for gay-identified men, the tiresome debate over the Torah's cultural understanding of homosexuality becomes moot, and there's no longer a case before the Law Committee to overturn the d'oreita (biblical) ban on mishkav zachar.

Then, upholding the Levitical prohibition, it can still consider the concerns of gay- and lesbian-identified Jews and their supporters. I do not believe that a single halacha should change in this arena, but granting that many Conservative Jews do, I've drafted a sample compromise, which which would not work for Orthodoxy. Still, it demonstrates that a compassionate halachic response to homosexuality can maintain the heterosexual ideal:

1. With Jews who are straight or bisexual, our tradition insists that licit sexuality can only be found in married opposite-sex relationships.

2. With "questioning" Jews, we urge extensive introspection and exploration of scientific, psychological and halachic perspectives on homosexuality, guided by a rabbi and qualified therapist, before any assertion of a sexual identity.

3. With gay-identified Jews certain they are not bisexual, we first reaffirm that Jewish law forbids mishkav zachar. For all men and women who feel they cannot succeed in an opposite-sex marriage, completely abstaining from sexual and romantic encounters is a noble, honorable and valid choice. Indeed, for uncoupled gay men and lesbians, celibacy is the only choice we can sanction.

4. Rabbis may opt to promote monogamous same-sex couplehood (but not mishkav zachar) by performing commitment ceremonies (but not marriages) for gay men and lesbians (but not bisexuals) who want a lifelong bond with a same-sex partner. For male couples, new rituals should be developed -- perhaps involving mikvah (ritual bath) and beit din (court) -- to clarify that the consecration of these loving relationships is no heter (permission) for forbidden sex acts.

5. For celibate gay, lesbian and bisexual Jews, sexual orientation will not be a barrier to rabbinic ordination or other leadership roles. We oppose investigations and witch hunts on bedroom matters for both gays and straights: If you're not openly gay we won't ask about your sexuality, and if you are, stating you are celibate is sufficient. Each seminary, synagogue and school can set its own policies about the ordination or employment of coupled homosexual Jews who have had commitment ceremonies.

If we can fix a halachic problem with a chisel, we must never use a sledgehammer. While the law committee may not ultimately share my halachic conservatism on homosexuality, surely any changes must narrowly target the actual conundrums before it. Sadly, the proposals to jettison Judaism's preference for heterosexual marriage instead seem aimed at satisfying various political and personal agendas. It will be hard, but anyone who cares about Jewish law must oppose the apparent alliance between gays who don't understand halacha and rabbis who don't understand homosexuality, each ignoring the other's deaf spots as together they demand the only result they'd ever accept anyway.

David Bianco, a former international president of United Synagogue Youth, writes the syndicated column Over The Rainbow. He is the author of "Modern Jewish History for Everyone" (HFE, 1997), and can be reached at DaveBianco@aol.com This column was first printed in The Jerusalem Post.

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