Not a month goes by without a young person just out of the closet — or sometimes that person’s shocked parents — contacting me in search of Orthodox leaders to respond credibly to their questions. It was this reality that was on my mind as I confronted the backlash to a same-sex commitment ceremony I performed last November. In response, 100 rabbis signed a statement censuring me. While these rabbis may prefer to foist this challenge upon me, the truth is that, as rabbis, we are all responsible for the conflict between present halachic norms and the real lives of people. We are all responsible for the gay and lesbian kids who are growing up in Orthodox communities and want a future. And I am not the only Orthodox rabbi who believes so.
Three years ago I interviewed 20 Orthodox rabbis on their pastoral experiences with gay people and their families. Those interviews were taped and transcribed, and many of them are incredibly moving. I wish I could share these and other conversations I have had over the years with Orthodox rabbis whose honesty and decency, whose humility in the face of a difficult question, are not widely known. But the interviews are secret because I promised not to share them. I can quote a few rabbis whose views were written or spoken publicly — though I am still reluctant to use their names.
When asked by a group of students what his views on homosexuality were one illustrious Modern Orthodox rabbi responded that he used to know the answer to that question. He could point to chapter and verse. Now when a gay person comes to him for counsel, his answer is, in his own words: “I don’t know. I just don’t have enough information to give a clear answer. I have 612 mitzvot that I feel I’ve got a better handle on. Come to my shul and we’ll work on those together.” Among the most human and honest responses an Orthodox rabbi has ever given to this dilemma is “I don’t know.”
Rabbis who actually have an open conversation with gay people discover that no one chooses his or her sexual orientation. Another beloved leader of Modern Orthodoxy, a rabbinic communal leader and a founder of a yeshiva, wrote with deep empathy early in his career: “How can we deny a human being the expression of his physical and psychic being? If there’s a problem with the kettle, blame the manufacturer. Is it not cruel to condemn an individual for doing that which his biological and genetic make-up demand that he do?” This Orthodox rabbi is not afraid of articulating the profound theological and moral challenge posed by Halacha as it is presently applied.
Recent rabbinical statements demand life-long celibacy from gay and lesbian Jews. But a number of rabbis have shared with me their doubts about these guidelines for the simple reason that God does not demand the impossible from people. A well-respected Orthodox author, rabbi and educator has said in a public forum: “It is not possible for the Torah to come and ask a person to do something which he is not able to do. Theoretically speaking, it would be better for the homosexual to live a life of celibacy. I just would argue one thing: It’s completely impossible. It doesn’t work. The human force of sexuality is so big it can’t be done.”
Given the unreasonable demand of life-long celibacy, it is very tempting for rabbis to believe that therapy can solve the dilemma. Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky has recently joined forces with JONAH, a Jewish “change therapy” organization, to claim that, as a matter of religious principle, since the Torah prohibits homosexual behavior the orientation must be, by necessity, a curable disease. Responding to this dangerous circular argument, another learned Orthodox rabbi and scholar, a man who has written extensively about homosexuality, has publicly said, “I am not under any compulsion to support a failed therapy in order to save myself from a distressing religious conflict.”