Saturday, May 19, 2012

Maybe We're Just Not Orthodox

Last week my friend Julie Sugar posted a very touching article  describing the tension she feels between her commitment to human values and her commitment to Orthodox Judaism.

The official position of the Orthodox Union is that "Jewish law is unequivocal in opposing same sex relationships . . . . [W]e, as Orthodox Jewish leaders, oppose any effort to change the definition of marriage to include same sex unions."  While I disagree with them, I don't claim that my own views are representative of Orthodox Judaism.  And I don't seriously expect the Orthodox Union to compromise its principles in response to public pressure.

According to the Wikipedia article on "Homosexuality and Judaism":
[A]ll of Orthodox Judaism puts certain core homosexual acts ... in the category of yehareg ve'al ya'avor, "die rather than transgress", the small category of Biblically-prohibited acts ... which an Orthodox Jew is obligated ... to die rather than do.
That sounds pretty definitive to me.  Just for the sake of argument, let's assume that these "core homosexual acts" are sins.  And we'll also assume that every letter in the Five Books of Moses was written by G-d.  Now the challenge (for me) becomes how to transform Orthodox Judaism so that it can live in peace and harmony with the gay people.

The prohibition against male homosexual relations is in Leviticus 18:22. "You shall not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; it is an abomination."  A few verses earlier the Torah says: "You shall not approach a woman in her time of unclean separation, to uncover her nakedness." (Leviticus 18:19)
According to "Jew in the City":
"[This] is a mitzvah, or commandment from the Torah, that says that during a woman's monthly cycle, plus seven days after her cycle is completed, a married couple refrains from all physical contact with one another.
These two commandments are both in the "die rather than transgress" category, and both are written in the literal Hebrew text of the Five Books of Moses.  But there is an important difference between them:  one of them is uniformly enforced in the entire Orthodox Jewish community and the other is not.  Male-to-male intimate relations, we are told, are a violation of Torah law and can never be accepted under any circumstances.  But there are plenty of rabbis who consider themselves Orthodox who will marry a couple who don't keep the laws of family purity.

(Edit: I'm not knowledgeable about the process of getting an Orthodox Jewish wedding.  I've been told that an Orthodox Jewish rabbi will require the bride to immerse in a mikvah (ritual bath) before the wedding.  I don't think this invalidates my central argument.  The bride and groom are following the laws of family purity on their wedding day, but they don't necessarily continue to follow those laws for the duration of their marriage.)

In fairness to the rabbis, this is a VERY hard problem.  One option would be to redefine the word "Orthodox" to refer to a much smaller subset of the Jewish community.  If the core values of Orthodox Judaism are that the Torah was written by G-d and what was written by G-d is not negotiable, then maybe a community that flagrantly disregards the laws of family purity shouldn't consider itself to be Orthodox.

Another option would be for Orthodox rabbis to have more stringent standards when deciding whether or not to marry a couple.  This would arguably create more problems than it solves.  The demographic realities are frightening, and I can see why the rabbis are acting as they do.  However, like Gandalf fighting the Balrog, sometimes in life you just have to take a stand and defend it.

The most realistic option, in my view, is to leave the facts on the ground exactly as they are but approach them from a different perspective, with a little more humility and a little less defensiveness.

On the blog "Mayim Rabim", author "Ruchama" makes an interesting suggestion.  If an unmarried man can go on a tefillin date, why can't an unmarried woman observe the laws of family purity?  Specifically, why can't an unmarried woman spend two weeks every month touching men and two weeks not touching men, with all the messiness and complications that that entails?

Short of living in a closed community, there really aren't any easy solutions.  But that shouldn't prevent us from being honest about defending the principles that actually matter.  If a sin is in the category of "die rather than transgress" and it's being ignored on a communal level, either it should be openly acknowledged that this isn't actually a core value, or else people have to stand up and defend it.  Either option is fine with me.  Please pick one.

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