Monday, May 17, 2004

Homosexuality in Halakhah V

I have been meaning to blog R. Chaim Rapoport's excellent book Judaism and Homosexuality: An Authentic Orthodox View. The author is a prominent rabbi in London who, though a Lubavitcher hasid, tends to a mainstream synagogue and serves on the Chief Rabbi's cabinet. The author is clearly an expert in halakhah and a master bibliographer. Additionally, he has written his book with his audience in mind, keeping the text to more general matters and leaving the complex halakhic issues for lengthy endnotes.

R. Rapoport's book is sure to make waves. He strongly argues for a number of non-mainstream views that have never before been put forth by such a traditional voice.

He starts off his book by laying down the prohibition against homosexuality. He states that not only are homosexual relations but any form of intimacy and even intentional fantasizing is prohibited for males; for females, the prohibition is either biblical or rabbinic, either way authoritatively binding. This is all adequately and convincingly documented with lengthy endnotes. However, he emphasizes, there is nothing inherently forbidden about being attracted to a member of the same sex. Being an inactive and carefully controlled homosexual is entirely consistent with an halakhic life.

He then progresses to reasons why homosexuality is forbidden. He makes his way through all of the different explanations of the word to'evah and concludes that while the prohibition might sometimes seem perfectly reasonable, it is ultimately a Divine decree and even situations that perhaps do not fit into any of the rationalizations for the prohibition - such as loving, monogamous homosexual relationships - are still forbidden. Whether this is a hok or a mishpat is, in the end, an academic issue.

Is homosexuality inborn or an acquired trait? Answer: It does not matter. Even if someone is born as a homosexual, that only determines one's desires and not one's actions. No one is forced by his nature to perform homosexual acts. R. Rapoport raises the convincing point that even proponents of "conversion therapy" claim a success rate of under 50%. That means that at least half of all homosexuals cannot be "converted" into heterosexuals. Furthermore, there are different degrees of homosexual attraction, with some being attracted to both sexes, some only to the opposite, and many with varying strengths toward each gender. Someone who is a "confirmed homosexual," with attraction only towards the opposite sex, is much less likely to be able to "convert" than someone who is attracted to both sexes.

However, chapter 3 is titled "The Formidable Challenge" because R. Rapoport acknowledges that homosexuals face a tremendous battle. One example that I found eye-opening is how a religious heterosexual would react to having an unusually strong libido. He would simply try to avoid interaction with women. In a strictly Orthodox society it is possible to accomplish this to a large degree. But what is a homosexual to do? How is an Orthodox male supposed to avoid being around other males, to many of whom he is physically attracted? If he is honest with himself, he knows that he must avoid temptation. Yet, the entire society is geared to help him avoid heterosexual temptation and, unwittingly, place him in situations of homosexual temptation. This is sure to cause great frustration to a homosexual trying desperately to do the right thing.

In chapter 4, R. Rapoport argues that homosexuals who succumb to their desire are no worse than other sinners. They are people who have given in to their desires - mumarim le-te'avon. There are those who suggest that homosexuals are under duress, they are annusim, but R. Rapoport rejects this line of thought. If this were so, an agunah would also be considered annusah if she engaged in an extra-marital affair, something which few would accept as a reasonable argument.

It is critical to maintain a proper understanding of the homosexual ordeal. This is not to excuse their transgressions, if they commit any, but to properly recognize their situations. No demographic has a higher suicide rate than homosexuals. Because there are certainly "closeted" homosexuals in the Orthodox community who are probably suffering greatly to live with their orientations, we must be extra-careful not to denigrate homosexuals and, possibly, push someone further into the depression that is common for homosexuals. Such a comment just might be pushing someone closer to suicide. If we understand how difficult their lives are, we will certainly project a sympathy for rather than a denigration of homosexuals.

Perhaps, R. Rapoport suggests in chapter 6, homosexuals in today's society of permissiveness are tinokos she-nishbu. Maybe they are. But if this is the case then we would have to be prepared to call adulterers and other sexual deviants tinokos she-nishbu as well. And maybe that is the case.

R. Rapoport emphasizes, though, that he is only dealing with individual homosexuals. He has no sympathy for organizations that promote a "homosexual lifestyle" or otherwise imply that homosexual relations is permitted by the Torah. These organizations are antithetical to Torah and are "completely outside the pale of acceptability."

It is unhealthy, and probably prohibited, to encourage someone to marry who cannot maintain a normal marital relationship. It is wrong for the closeted homosexual and even more wrong for the unwitting spouse who commits to a relationship under false pretenses. Every situation is different. But many homosexuals are entirely unfit for marriage and to encourage otherwise is to inflict emotional trauma on two vulnerable people.

Finally, the last chapter is devoted to real correspondence R. Rapoport carried on with homosexuals and with those who attacked his stances as being too liberal. The sympathy R. Rapoport is able to evoke is a strong weapon in properly advising these troubled souls. As to his critics on the right, R. Rapoport's scholarship is amply sufficient to ward off such attacks.

If any criticism is to be delivered to this book, I believe it is regarding R. Rapoport's almost entirely avoiding the very real issue of defiant homosexuals. That is, those who believe that the Torah is wrong for prohibiting homosexuality and try to recruit others to their cause. These people are distorters of Torah, sinners lehakh'is, and are deserving of our condemnation. However, we must be incredibly sensitive not to give the impression that we are condemning the struggling homosexual who truly wishes to follow G-d's word. Nevertheless, I believe that lehakh'is homosexuals are extremely common and are, unfortunately, casting a negative shadow on struggling homosexuals. R. Rapoport's avoidance of this topic was perhaps intentional, or perhaps naive. Either way, it will surely be raised by his critics.

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