Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Statement of Principles: Why I Haven't Signed

About six months ago, I received an email from Rabbi Nati Helfgot about a "Statement of Principles" that he was working to draft about how Orthodoxy should relate to homosexuality and people with homosexual tendency. I chose then not to get involved in the process, mostly because I'm not in the active rabbinate. The statement has been the topic of heated, respectful discussion on internal rabbinic email lists, but I must admit that I had not been following close attention. Then, yesterday, I received an email asking whether my name is, "intentionally missing", and whether I wanted to sign on.
Now I feel the need to respond to the statement, and why I did not - and do not plan on signing it.
First and foremost, I agree with the vast majority of the statement. I take issue with some of the language in the section about the children of openly gay couples which states that,
...communities should display sensitivity, acceptance and full embrace of the adopted or biological children of homosexually active Jews in the synagogue and school setting
Of course the children did not make their parents' choices. But how does a shul "fully embrace" a child while at the same time rejecting that child's parents' relationship? What is the rabbi supposed to say at the Bat Mitzvah? Does he acknowledge the parents (and laud them for their chessed, kindness, activism, what have you - common rabbinic practice), and indirectly project an approval for their family structure? (You could argue with that assumption of indirect approval, but I feel it would be there. You could also argue that we do precisely the same thing for parents who are not Shomer Shabbat. Fair point, but I see a difference.) I am not comfortable with the language in the statement, and probably would not have signed it for that reason alone. Or maybe they would have softened it if I had asked. Who knows?
Yet, I won't sign the statement for a more nuanced reason: I don't want to single out homosexual people at all. We live in a culture where a person's homosexuality is, by definition, a defining attribute of their identity. Every gay person, Western Culture says, should "Come out of the closet" and express their sexual identity with pride. Torah Judaism obviously sees things differently, and views homosexual tendencies as a spiritual challenge that one must struggle to overcome.That being the case, a paragraph like this troubles me.
Accordingly, Jews with homosexual orientations or same sex-attractions should be welcomed as full members of the synagogue and school community. As appropriate with regard to gender and lineage, they should participate and count ritually, be eligible for ritual synagogue honors, and generally be treated in the same fashion and under the same halakhic and hashkafic framework as any other member of the synagogue they join. Conversely, they must accept and fulfill all the responsibilities of such membership, including those generated by communal norms or broad Jewish principles that go beyond formal halakhah.
Mima Nafshach: If a Jew keeps his or her sexual orientation private, then she or he should of course be welcomed as a full member of the community. Who doesn't struggle to overcome sinful inclinations, be they the desire to surf porn on the internet or cheat on one's taxes? That's why we come to shul. But if a Jew has declared that lifestyle to be part of their identity, then they also insist that the community embrace their unacceptable behavior as part of the communal norm. That I cannot accept.
The statement bothers me because the very notion of singling out people with homosexual tendencies and their place in the community highlights the very thing that I feel is no one's business but their own. I (community member) don't want to know. I should not know, and should ask the single man to daven for the amud, lein, give shiurim, and live a full and productive life. I don't want to treat him as a "male with homosexual tendencies." I want to relate to him like a fellow Jew. To do that requires that he keep his personal struggles, as strong as they are, private.
Note here: I am not speaking as his rabbi. If he seeks spiritual guidance, he should turn to the rabbi who can offer counsel, advice, and listen to his pain. He might tell his parents, so that they don't nudge him about getting married. But the private should remain so, and must not become an aspect of a person's public persona, especially in the context of a Torah community.
This is where we digress from today's popular culture. It was once acceptable to promote a policy of "Don't ask, don't tell." (That's pretty much what I'm advocating.) But gays in broader society wonder, justifiably so, why they should hide a core component of what they view as their identity. It's a fair question.
But Judiasm cannot view homosexual tendencies in this way. It absolutely prohibits homosexual behavior, and demands that we fight to overcome those tendencies. It can never view these inclinations as a core aspect of one's identity. So to release a statement of principles which seems to counter this attitude is, in my view, counterproductive.
There is another, more sinister element to the list. It will now create a split in the Orthodox community between those who signed, and those who will not, for whatever reason. "Why did Rabbi So-and-So sign? Why did Rabbi Such-and-Such not sign? What if I was still in the pulpit but did not want to sign the statement for the reasons I outlined above? What would a congregant struggling with homosexuality think of me? Am I now "against" him - despite the fact that I've been very public about how we should respect and admire people who struggle with homosexuality. The very appearance of this list, while well-meaning, will undoubtedly cause rifts between community members within communities and between rabbis and their congregants.
Is it worth it?
I really don't know.